GRAND RAPIDS — When the Wege Foundation stepped forward in November with a $20 million donation towards a new art museum in downtown Grand Rapids, it set a precedent for giving in West Michigan.
The Wege Foundation gift marked the largest lead gift ever given to a cultural institution in West Michigan and the largest donation ever made by the foundation, which local philanthropist Peter M. Wege established in 1967.
The Wege Foundation has been and continues to be one of the museum’s major benefactors and has sponsored a number of exhibitions and programs. Wege, who has been a museum trustee for more than 40 years, is quick to point out that the gift is from all the people involved in the Wege Foundation, his family members among them.
He said the foundation’s hope is that the new museum will become a flagship cultural attraction that has economic impact on all of West Michigan.
The museum director, Celeste Adams, told the Business Journal she and her colleagues were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the $20 million pledge. The Wege Foundation was aware of the museum’s plans for expansion and there had been a long period of deliberation about what form the expansion should take, Adams recalled. But museum officials were “speechless” when the foundation made the offer.
“It changed our whole approach and our ability to plan, and became a catalyst for what we hope will be a successful campaign, with others joining in to make this a reality,” Adams said.
“The lead gift was absolutely vital to the bringing together of so many other people who would then play a role in making it happen. It was critical in energizing the role of the city and Downtown Development Authority.”
The foundation designated $5 million of the gift for operating endowment. Adams said the endowment is critical to the museum’s sustainability and its ability to provide quality programs.
“If you’re raising all the money it takes to operate year by year you can never plan ahead,” she said. “The brilliance of the lead gift is combining bricks and mortar with endowment, and that is the visionary aspect of this gift.
“You want to be able to have the vision of building an institution and then running the institution. Otherwise, you’ve built something that’s a trophy but you’ve placed the responsibility for keeping it afloat on the backs of your children and grandchildren.”
The Wege Foundation gift is an indication of the art museum’s value to the community, as well as an indication of confidence in the museum’s mission and the way it’s being carried out, she said, adding that the museum is part of a “dynamic cultural menu” that benefits everyone.
According to Adams, those supporting and funding the effort “are looking very clearly at the mission of the major flagship organizations in town and want to see them as a spectrum of colors that fit together to offer a wonderful cultural agenda for people here.”
Since its founding in 1910, the art museum has been housed in several facilities, for the past 20 years in the former U.S. Post Office and Federal Court Building on Division Avenue. The museum uses 40,000 square feet of space in the building.
Adams said no one has as yet stated what the campaign goal will be or what the building cost will be, but the “guestimate” is a $40 million to $60 million, 125,000-square-foot facility in the 100 block of Monroe Center, a location adjacent to Rosa Parks Circle and artist Maya Lin’s “Ecliptic.”
An expanded facility will accommodate the growing number of annual visitors, which now range between 70,000 and 80,000, as well as expanded art education programs.
“To me, art and music are the foundation of a community, and I just feel that Grand Rapids should have the best if it’s possible,” Wege said. “I just felt that being housed in an old building that had no future as far as expansion was holding us back from being what we should be, as far as being a mature, outgoing art museum that could do a lot of educational outreach for children in the area.”
Art history is the history of civilization, Wege said, and the foundation hopes that through art education outreach programs “art will rise to be one of the foremost subjects and source of inspiration for young people.”
“We have one of the best symphonies in the country right now, and we made that possible through the collaboration of a lot of fine people in Grand Rapids who wanted our symphony to be one of the best.” If the art museum project has the same kind of collaboration, it too could eventually be among the best, he said.
Why a contribution in the staggering amount of $20 million?
“I thought it was adequate to start it going, and that, hopefully, the city and the people involved in other organizations and foundations would recognize it’s a good thing and come to the table,” he said. “If they come up with a match of $20 million, then we’ll have almost enough to build the structure.”
The museum’s architect selection committee is expected to announce the design architect by summer, possibly as early as June, Adams said. Construction is expected to begin by early 2004.
A public fund-raising campaign likely won’t be announced until an architect is selected, or possibly around the same time that a preliminary design for the building is announced.