The Whitney is bold, original and hews to its mission: to be the defining museum of 20th and 21st century American art.

In the meatpacking district of New York City, staring out at the Hudson River where Titanic survivors docked, looming over a once-abandoned railway reclaimed as feted public park the High Line, is another NYC landmark, the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Whitney is one of the city’s big four art museums alongside the Guggenheim, MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The landscape may have been different if it were not for historical cultural cringe. In 1929, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor of great fortune who channelled her wealth into promoting and supporting American artists, particularly women, offered her collection of 600 artworks to the Met. And a gift to build a wing to house that collection. They said no. They did not value American art. In 1931, the Whitney opened in Gertrude’s Greenwich Village studio, renovated and expanded for the purpose.

In a quest for more space, the Whitney would move to midtown and then uptown (into a modernist masterpiece designed by Marcel Breuer and now the temporary home of The Frick Collection) before relocating downtown to its current building, from another design luminary and frequent architect of cultural institutions, Renzo Piano. 

Now, with around 4,600 square metres of indoor galleries and 1,200 square metres of outdoor exhibition space, there is ample room for rotating displays of the Whitney’s permanent collection (over 26,000 works including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, films, videos and new media artifacts created by more than 3,700 artists). Right now, there are 402 artworks on view. You could find Georgia O’Keeffe’s Music, Pink and Blue No, 2 on Floor 8. Jasper Johns’ Three Flags on Floor 7. Or head to Floor 5 for the exhibition Edward Hopper’s New York. There is a regular schedule of exhibitions, films, live performances and an education program. Then there is one the art world’s premier events, the Whitney Biennial — influential, illustrious and at times, incendiary. 

At all times, the Whitney is bold, original and hews to its mission: to be the defining museum of 20th and 21st century American art. 

Overseeing the fundraising that is crucial to achieving this mission is Pamela Besnard. As Chief Advancement Officer, Pamela oversees individual and planned giving, corporate membership and sponsorship, special events, foundation and government grants, donor stewardship and Board of Trustee relations. 

Ahead of her visit to Australia to speak at ArtsRaise 2023, F&P’s Clare Joyce caught up with Pamela to discuss the Whitney and her role as a fundraiser.

What is your favourite artwork housed at the Whitney and why? This question is too difficult — it’s impossible to pick only one! Instead, I will select a painting that is up now in an exhibition from the permanent collection that to me conveys the independent spirit and determination of our founder. It’s a portrait by the influential artist Robert Henri of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, which she commissioned in 1916, as her path as an accomplished sculptor and founder of the Whitney Studio had begun. She appears in this oil painting of gorgeous, rich colours, reclined on a sofa in a beautiful top and silk pants (that might be pyjamas) looking relaxed and self-assured. The story is that her husband refused to hang the portrait in their Fifth Avenue mansion, scandalised to see a picture of his wife “in pants”. She subsequently hung the portrait in her 8th Street studio which, in 1931, became the first home of the Whitney Museum.

There are more than 35,000 museums in the United States. What makes the Whitney different or unique? The Whitney Museum had its origins in the Greenwich Village studio of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in the early 1900s. Since its inception, the museum has been dedicated to advocacy on behalf of artists themselves and promoting a commitment to American art and building a community of artists. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, herself an artist, never set out to create a space for her collection the way other museums were founded. What was to become the Whitney Museum evolved more gradually over two decades through her aspirations as an artist herself, as well as her desire to help other artists through showing, sometimes purchasing, their work and aiding them in more personal ways. The forward-thinking spirit and ethos in support of living artists and the risks their work entails have carried forward since the museum’s opening in 1931. 

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney by Robert Henri (1916) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Tell us about fundraising now at the Whitney. The Whitney’s annual operating budget is approximately $60 million, and the advancement department is responsible for raising, on average, 30% of that budget every year, or approximately $20 million in contributed revenue. Earned revenue (ticket sales, membership, retail) accounts, on average, for another 30%, while the income yield from the museum’s endowment and income from the rental of the Whitney’s former building on the upper east side covers the remaining third. 

Over the past two years, fundraising’s share of the operating budget has increased, approaching 40%, given the pressures on earned revenue during and after the closure. Including myself and my assistant, we have a staff of 22 in Advancement with nine in individual giving, three in foundation and government and eight in corporate giving and events. Our trustees are a critical foundation of our fundraising year to year, not only through their annual giving but also generously supporting exhibitions, the education program and special initiatives that fall outside the operating budget. The annual dues and similarly incremental support from our patron group members also account for a substantial portion of our fundraising. Private foundation grants support the Whitney’s exhibitions, education program, and, more recently, other museum-wide efforts that focus on promoting equity and inclusion across everything we do. Less than 1% of our operating fundraising comes from government sources, though there is still extensive reporting for city and state funders related to capital projects. (Government pandemic-related assistance has been vital but is not included in our fundraising totals.) Corporate sponsorship of exhibitions, our corporate membership program and external rentals make up a critical leg of the fundraising stool that is rebounding well from the lows caused by the closure. 

Do you have a philosophy that guides you as a fundraiser? My philosophy as a fundraiser is very close to my philosophy as a person, in terms of my conduct, work ethic, genuine care for relationships — in this case, be they staff, donors or patrons; a passion for the mission, as well as genuine curiosity about people and their lives, what motivates them and their passions. Focus and stamina are essential and the ability to care deeply, without personalising the ups and downs — these are the key aspects of how I approach this profession. In the same day, this can be the most difficult job ever and hours later feel like the best job ever. Also, I never take for granted the exceptional opportunities this profession has offered me and the privilege of working at the Whitney with my hardworking colleagues and our caring supporters. 

What has been your favourite or most memorable experience leading fundraising at the Whitney? While not my favourite, the most memorable experience will certainly be managing through the closure of the Whitney due to the pandemic, achieving strong fundraising results throughout and keeping a very strong team optimistic (or at least appearing to be!) and motivated through that challenging time. My favourite experience would be dancing with fellow museum staff and guests to the amazing Questlove, who was disc jockeying late into the night in the Whitney lobby in August 2021 to celebrate the artist Julie Mehretu and her amazing exhibition at the Whitney. You could really feel the joy people had partying and dancing together after the long haul of the last year and a half. 

This is an extract of an interview that will appear in the autumn issue of F&P magazine, out on 1 March.

Pamela will present two sessions at ArtsRaise 2023: ‘What makes a great fundraiser? Common misperceptions and insights on success’ and ‘How the Whitney Museum of American Art does Advancement (also known as fundraising)’.

ArtsRaise 2023 take place in Melbourne on 28 + 29 March. To learn more and register, click here.