‘A big, unexpected donation: ‘Tremendous surprise’
As board chair at the National Museum of Mexican Art, Carlos Cardenas was among the many nonprofit leaders nationwide shocked by sizable surprise donations from billionaire MacKenzie Scott. She has donated nearly $20 billion, including an unrestricted $8 million to the museum, which prompted “tremendous surprise and utter shock” from the board, Cardenas said. Cardenas, senior vice president and group manager at Wintrust Commercial Banking’s Chicago Loop office and a Chicago native, talked to Crain’s about the benefits—and challenges—of the donation.
CRAIN’S: What was the board’s reaction upon receiving the $8 million donation from MacKenzie Scott?
CARDENAS: Tremendous surprise and utter shock. When our president/CEO received the notification that the museum had a major donor looking to give us a significant gift, we thought it was a phishing attempt. We’ve never had a donor approach us in this fashion, with really no formality. It was like, “Hey, big donor wants to give you a gift, please provide us your bank information and wiring instructions.” We were taken aback, but after corroborating with a circle of folks in the art world from the West Coast, we gained comfort it was legit. However, we did not know it was MacKenzie Scott until the funds were already on their way.
Please put the donation in perspective.
It is by far the largest major gift we have received in our 39-year history. Our operating budget is around $5 million annually. It is a truly transformational gift with no restrictions. MacKenzie Scott explained her rationale best in her June 15 blog: “Teams with experience on the front lines of challenges will know best how to put the money to good use. We encouraged them to spend it however they choose.” We intend to use the funds wisely and purposefully.
How will you use it?
Going into 2020, the museum’s board of trustees had just spent the prior several years completing a five-year strategic plan review, which resulted in a feasibility study that identified the need to launch a major capital/endowment campaign with an initial $10 million fundraising goal for various strategic priorities. The timing was ideal, as we were ready for potential uses of the gift. The $8 million MacKenzie Scott gift, along with the December 2020 $3.6 million Ford Foundation grant, has allowed us to make progress toward our established goals to protect and grow the permanent collection, expand programming with a local and national reach, develop a world-class website and establish a virtual museum, and establish an endowment.
The challenge will be to remain fiscally disciplined and focused, so that we continue to act on our mission—but now with some added financial flexibility. Our biggest challenge is to remain stewards and not waste/misuse these amazing gifts.
How will the gift affect future fundraising efforts?
We’ve expanded our original capital campaign goal to $20.1 million from $10 million and have met 66% of the revised goal. Good news breeds additional good news. Both the Scott and Ford Foundation donations have raised our profile. Donors and foundations which have never been engaged with the NMMA are now actively seeking us out. We are keen to take advantage of this momentum and leverage these gifts to enhance our individual and foundation fundraising efforts. The public launch of our capital campaign is very timely.
Of the ways the museum plans to use the donation, which do you personally find most exciting?
First, of the $11.6 million received through these major surprise gifts, the board has designated around $7.3 million toward an endowment. I am extremely pleased to strengthen our balance sheet. We’ve operated for the past 39 years year over year with little cushion other than a few hundred thousand dollars in a segregated account; this will ensure we have a safety net and operating flexibility for decades to come.
Second, we hope to create a groundbreaking digital experience that brings our permanent collection and exhibitions to life for online audiences across the world. The pandemic forced us to rethink how we delivered the NMMA experience/mission. Our Yollocalli Arts Reach pivoted after-school programming, online, to ensure our youth had a place to connect with each other and continue to create their art. NMMA hosted a virtual opening for our 2020 annual Day of the Dead exhibition and curated videos to help the tradition come to life for viewers online. Our creative teams developed the capacity to lead interactive virtual guided tours and moved art-making workshops to Zoom.
NMMA is stronger because of these virtual efforts, and we are excited at the expanded reach we now have with new audiences as we came to realize that through delivery of virtual content and programming, we are no longer limited by geography.
What does the gift mean for the future of the museum?
Given our location in Pilsen, we aim to remain free admission. The gift further enables our work in delivering arts-focused community outreach programs—art can soothe and can disrupt, but we especially see how art initiates conversations, reveals shared experiences and fosters understanding. This gift will allow us to continue our commitment to providing exceptional visual and performing arts programs, arts education and professional development. We are excited to be building on 30-plus years of work elevating Mexican art and culture and are eager to look beyond the short term and into a bright and creative future, ensuring the NMMA remains meaningful for the next 50 years.