Museums Working to Cultivate Younger Donors, Board Members

Many museums view special events that target young, wealthy donors as central to their public programming, but such events are also vital to their future financial health, the reports.

Across the country, museums large and small are preparing for the eventual passing of the baton by the baby boom generation, which for decades has been the lifeblood not only of individual giving but of boardroom leadership. Yet it is far from clear whether the children of boomers are prepared to follow in their parents' footsteps. Boomers today control 70 percent of the nation's disposable income, according to a 2013 (44 pages, PDF) from the , and while most millennials don't yet have the disposable income of their elders, those that do are increasingly drawn to social rather than artistic causes.

Of course, generational change is a constant, but as the boomers' children age and move up, there is concern among administrators and trustees that millennials will be unable, or unwilling, to meet the financial and leadership demands of increasingly complex — and expensive to operate — museums. "The generational shift is something a lot of museums are talking about," said AAM president Ford W. Bell. "The traditional donors are either dying, stepping back, or turning it over to their children or grandchildren."

Indeed, developing and mentoring the next generation of museum patrons has become a key focus for many institutions. At the in Minneapolis, three-fourths of the board has turned over in the past seven years, as trustees in their forties and late thirties have become a fixture on the board. And while the in New York City has had a strategy in place to cultivate younger patrons since the 1940s, the is struggling with funding challenges, in part because of a decline in gifts from well-heeled locals. 

On balance, however, museum directors and their trustees think that millennials will rise to the challenge. "I'm certainly optimistic," said financier Charles Schwab, a board member at the . "If not, museums will degenerate and will eventually fall into the hands of government budgets and be in a death spiral. I hope that’s not the case."

David Gelles. "." New York Times 03/19/2014.