Big news from the world of art philanthropy this week, as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, announced a staggering $42.5 million gift from Jeffrey Gundlach, a billionaire investor. Though now based in California, Gundlach is a Buffalo native and remembers being ‘dragged’ to the Gallery, which focuses on modern and contemporary art, by his mom and grandmother at a young age. 

There are a few reasons why Gundlach’s gift is so remarkable. Mike Scutari at Inside Philanthropy notes that before this gift, ‘Gundlach had not been a major contributor to the gallery in the past or a particularly big supporter of any other museum.’ Further, the Gallery’s director guesses that this is Buffalo’s single largest cultural gift ever from a single donor. Scutari reports, too, that combined with a substantial gift from Sotheby’s Amy Cappellazzo, the Albright-Knox Gallery has now raised some $103 million in less than three months, putting it well on its way towards its current capital campaign’s $125 million goal.

Gundlach explains his decision-making with reference to impact. ‘I wanted this project to succeed,’ he explained, ‘[and] I thought […] it will take somebody to show up and really motivate giving. I tend to do things, not with teaspoons, but to try to make a difference.’ 

But surely there’s yet another way in which Gundlach’s giant gift defies philanthropic conventions. Currently living in Santa Monica, Gundlach could have chosen any number of L.A.-based galleries or museums to support. Indeed, he could have donated directly to the Tate in London, where in 2002 he first discovered a love for modern art (Gundlach admits that before that trip he ‘had no interest’ in modern art, and thought it was a ‘joke’ and a ‘scam’). He could have funded the art and studio programs at his alma mater Dartmouth College. Or, if he wanted to support a gallery in his home state of New York, he could have easily chosen something in the City. 

But in this case, the Albright-Knox’s relatively small size was a strategic asset. ‘Let’s say I gave $42.5 million to the Met,’ Gundlach explains, ‘you wouldn’t be able to find it with a microscope.’ 

Apparently those childhood visits to the Albright-Knox always stayed with Gundlach, carving out a special place in his heart for the local gallery. And when it came time for Gundlach to make a major donation, his mind naturally went to the place where his money would make the most difference. Here’s a good example, then, of how small institutions can chart a successful path forward even when faced with the unbeatable budgets and resources of top-level competitors. 

For small local galleries, the lesson is clear: play to your strengths, even when that means highlighting your weaknesses. 


Photo credit: inju via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA