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Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Another PMA Blockbuster

Constance Williams
Named Trustee Chair

By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer Bio

'You gotta give to get.' That's a core tenet in professional non-profit fund-raising. In other words, if you solicit a major gift from a peer, you had better be a major donor as well.

The Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art didn't forget that iron-clad maxim last week (15 April) when it picked one of its own, Constance H. Williams, a fabulously wealthy oil heiress, as its new chair.

The board, a sometime bastion of feel-good members rather than financial heavy- hitters, in fact, offered up a triple play in selecting Williams, 65, a savvy, politically-connected former state legislator; a director of the Hess Foundation (viz the 'H' in her name); and the wife of another major donor, Dr. Sankey V. Williams, a prof at Penn's School of Medicine.

Between them, the Williamses, residents of suburban Haverford, donated in 2008 from $1.1-million to $6-million to museum coffers, according to PMA's 2009 Annual Report, the museum's latest fiscal accounting. (The numbers are fuzzy since the PMA reports no specific gifts, just these broad ranges of giving).

Moreover, her family-controlled Hess Foundation contributed between $1.25-million and $6-million, according to the 2009 Annual Report. The New York-based foundation reputedly controls assets of about $155 million.

That sizable pattern of giving is similar to the Williames' generosity in previous years.

It's also consistent -- though not at mega-million-dollar level -- with that of her predecessor, H.F. 'Gerry' Lenfast, 79, whose financial stewardship and partnership with the late PMA director Anne d'Harnoncourt was legendary in national museum circles.

Lenfast is slated to remain on the board, an unknown that could spell good news for Williams (support) or a spot of trouble (an old hand not learning to release his grip on the reins).

Still, Williams appointment is very good news indeed for Timothy Rub, the museum's new head. Since succeeding d'Harnoncourt as director last autumn, Rub has had to face financial woes from Day One, including a shrinking endowment, staff cuts, and publicly unpopular moves increasing admission charges and eliminating free-offerings for admission on Sundays.

Williams quickly asserted her commitment to museum expansion, which, if undertaken, will become a signature gun notch for Rub. Already planned are new modern and contemporary art galleries, to be designed by Frank Gehry in an underground apron below Eakins Oval.

Though couched in bureaucratise, Rub alluded to this growth in prepared remarks. 'Our entire staff is eager to work closely with Connie and her fellow trustees to achieve the goals we have set for this institution and to meet the new challenges in the 21st century....'

Williams didn't mince words. With the authoritativeness of a major financial player, Williams declared, 'I will also ask my fellow trustees to join me in working to fulfill the vision embodied in our facilities master plan....'

Memo to trustees: Start digging into your pockets.

Not surprisingly -- again, 'You gotta give to get' -- Williams and her husband have already committed, of their total 2008 giving, between $1-million and $4,999,999 'in support of the long-range plan.'

Williams was known for her influence during her Harrisburg tenure, which included stints as a rep (1997-2001) and senator (2001-2008). Ties forged during those years are seen as giving her additional clout at the local, state, and national levels in delivering on the museum's agenda. Williams, a Penn Wharton grad, also has 'a strong background in marketing, publishing, and public service,' according to the museum.

Williams quickly became a shooting star when she joined the board in 2006, with appointments to the board's powerful executive committee and to its equally-prestigious modern and contemporary art committee. Her service on this latter committee and its commitment to new art forms bodes well for two of the PMA's 'marquee' curators, modern art curator Michael Taylor and contemporary art curator Carlos Basualdo.

In her remarks, Williams also renewed her commitment to public education in the arts, a topic that is often just museum-talk boilerplate. Williams has walked the talk, however, by endowing the chair now held by Barbara A. Bassett, curator of education, school and teacher programs.

Williams also spoke of the possibility re-introducing Sunday admission by free-will offering. This move would be a certain crowd-pleaser. And it would likely garner keen support from Rub, who introduced totally free admission to the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he served before his 2009 appointment to the Philadelphia Museum.