In December 2021, The Ralph C. Wilson Foundation established an endowment and committed $100 million to transform the financial strength and long-term viability of Western New York’s art and culture community. The Foundation will contribute nearly $60 million over the next ten years through a new endowment at the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. This investment will create a permanent operational funding stream for 13 of the region’s largest arts and culture institutions and will provide an annual grant opportunity for additional arts and culture organizations across Western New York.
“This investment was out of the Foundation’s Economic Development focus area,” said Jim Boyle, Vice President of Programs and Communications at the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation Jr. Foundation. “Our intention with making this substantial investment is two-fold. In the short-term, we knew many of these institutions were facing urgent needs related to the economic impact of the pandemic, so there was a desire to get funds out immediately while the endowment is being built on a parallel path. Overall, the Foundation’s goal with this initiative is to help transform the strength and long-term viability of the region’s arts & culture sector as regional economic drivers, in addition to supporting inclusion and access strategies to better serve all communities.”
To ensure that the program has an immediate impact, the Foundation plans on providing an additional $33.75 million in grants beginning in 2022 and continuing over the next nine years while the endowment is growing $3.7 million in annual funding will be dispersed and utilized in three areas:
$500,000 will be available each year for primarily small to mid-size arts and culture institutions across the nine counties of Western New York. Organizations will apply through their regional community foundation. “We recognize that arts & culture institutions of all sizes play a tremendous role in shaping the unique identity and fabric of communities,” said Boyle. “This sector’s contributions to Western New York’s quality of life and economy through job creation, local spending, consumer purchases, tax revenue, and tourism are significant, in addition to attracting and retaining talent.”
$3 million will be allocated to provide operational support for 13 arts and cultural institutions located throughout Buffalo and Western New York identified as economic drivers in their communities to assist with sustainability and inclusion efforts. These institutions are the Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park, Buffalo History Museum, Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Buffalo Zoo, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Explore & More: he Ralph C. Wilson, Jr, Children’s Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House, Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor and anchor institutions, National Comedy Center, Shea’s Performing Art Center, and The Strong National Museum of Play.
$250,000 in funding to the community foundations that supports permanent capacity to manage and operate the funding and community engagement work required, as well as support ways that the sector can improve upon inclusion and access for individual organizations of all scopes and sizes.
“The Foundation’s trustees wanted to make a bold statement with this significant and meaningful investment that builds upon and complements the substantial and long term investment that many local and national funders, individual donors, and critical public funding streams have made in these treasured entities, which have helped them become the regional economic drivers they are today,” said Boyle.
Identifying Institutions for Funding
The Foundation selected the 13 institutions in Western New York to receive annual endowment funding through an internal process that was data-informed. “There is an incredible amount of beloved and celebrated arts and cultural institutions across the nine counties of the Foundation’s geographic focus in Western New York,” said Boyle. “However, with the Foundation’s desire to make an impact in the region and within the organizations identified for funding, we had to narrow the selection to a handful of institutions that contribute substantial economic impact within the region, with many driving significant tourism, in addition to local visitation and some that carry local and national prominence with cultural-specific missions,” Boyle said that the Foundation had to make a cut at some point but that the Foundation knew that small and midsize cultural organizations also contribute significantly to the regions’ economy.
Impactful Museum Support
Buffalo Museum of Science will receive $200,000 annually from the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation
“As we prepare to embark on a new multi-year strategic plan, this incredibly generous source of funding will serve as a catalyst for jump-starting a number of ambitious objectives,” said Marisa Wigglesworth, President and CEO of the Buffalo Science Museum and Tifft Nature Preserve. “It will better position us to develop and strengthen community connections through which we can deliver informal STEM education and provide science content that is relevant, meaningful, and accessible to new and continuing audiences.” The Buffalo Museum of Science, which will receive $200,000 annually, previously received support from the Foundation through their STEM 2035 Initiative which invests in advancing STEM education opportunities in Western New York. The funding helped re-launch the Museum’s Teen STEM Initiative, an out-of-school time program that provides teens from backgrounds under-represented in STEM careers with STEM-leaning and job-readiness skills. The Museum also received support from The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Legacy Funds at the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo to complete a feasibility study to build a fully accessible trail at Tifft Nature Preserve.
The Buffalo History Museum will receive $150,000 annually from the Foundation through this new funding stream. “The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation recognizes the vital role of endowments and through this program addresses two of the largest challenges faced by culturals, especially in this pandemic-aware climate,” said Melissa Brown, Executive Director of the Buffalo History Museum. In 2017, the Foundation provided $600,000 to the Museum’s Restore, Reactivate, Reconnect capital campaign that helped fund rehabilitation of the second floor West Gallery of the Museum, home of the exhibit “Icons: The Makers and Moments of Buffalo Sports.”
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House will receive $100,000 annually. “The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation’s support of multiple institutions of all sizes through their Art Initiative is a unique partnership that will sustain our cultural community in perpetuity,” said Mary Roberts, Executive Director of the Martin House. “It is a testament to the value of the arts. These are local institutions who are relevant and respond to the needs of the community. We are grateful for their support and endorsement of our work.”
These annual funds are unrestricted and can be designated for general operating needs. “For some, this might mean strengthening cash reserves for emergencies, completing much-needed facility repairs, or hiring key staff,” said Boyle. “These funds are not intended for programmatic expenses.” The Foundation hopes that this process will result in shared agreements across the institutions regarding these operational metrics. “These operational metrics often don’t get the attention they deserve in terms of keeping these entities healthy and helping them to reach their potential to serve their communities and patrons.”
“This wonderful opportunity will lead to long-term financial stabilization, sustainability, and viability–for us, this truly is a gamechanger,” said Terry Alford, Executive Director of the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission. The Michigan Street African American Corridor was established in 2007 through NYS legislation that created a historic preservation area on Buffalo’s east side. Cultural anchors include the Michigan Street Baptist Church, the Nash House, the Colored Musicians Club and Museum, and the WUFO Radio Black Radio History Collective. “Our inclusion serves as a meaningful and significant recognition of the important role the African American Heritage Corridor plays in creating a thriving cultural center on the east side of Buffalo. We are grateful to the Wilson Foundation for establishing an endowment that will create a permanent path forward for our Commission to work together with the anchor institutions to honor and preserve this historic district’s legacy for many generations to come.”
Supporting Capital Projects
Architectural rendering of the new 30,000 square foot addition to the 1905 building on the main Albright-Knox Campus. Photo courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery
The Foundation is also awarding two $5 million capital grants to support the expansion of the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.
The $5 million grant to The Strong will support its $60 million “Powered by Play” capital campaign.
“The Strong is deeply grateful to have been chosen by The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation as one of 13 recipients in New York to receive annual support and to also be recognized for the museum’s international reputation and strength as an economic driver through a capital grant to directly support the museum’s transformative expansion project, including a new 90,000-square-foot museum wing,” said Steve Dubnik, President and CEO of The Strong. “In addition to helping fund the significant costs of operating the museum, The Foundation’s annual support will help ensure The Strong’s long-term viability and resilience in the face of future potential large-scale challenges and global uncertainties.”
The Albright-Knox will use the $5 million to support its construction of an “Indoor Town Square” which will become a year-round destination that will be free and open to the public.
“In December, the Wilson Foundation announced that it was awarding the Buffalo AKG Art Museum a $5 million capital campaign gift as well as $500,000 of annual operating support in perpetuity,” said Jillian Jones, Director of Advancement at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (formerly, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery). “As we prepare for the opening of the Buffalo AKG in Spring 2023, the Wilson Foundation has brought us $5 million closer to reaching our capital campaign goal for the construction project. At the same time, they have ensured that the museum will have the funds necessary to operate our expanded and revitalized campus. For years, the Wilson Foundation and its leadership have realized the vision of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. in Western New York by supporting arts and cultural organizations. Their unprecedented support is a testament to their belief in the power of institutions like the Buffalo AKG to contribute to economic, social, and cultural life across the region.”
“It’s our hope that the funding we are providing to these 13 organizations in Western New York will be transformative, but we know that more is needed to support them and there are hundreds more that have similar needs,” said Boyle. “It’s our hope that other funders will join us in this approach with a focus on operational support and the use of endowment as a tool and trust these institutions will be good stewards of their assets.”
Learn more about the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation: https://www.ralphcwilsonjrfoundation.org/