Chain Heavy: The Hidden Cost of Margo Leavin's $20M Gift to UCLA
Very little in the art industry is ever a pure positive or negative if you look closely enough. It's the reason that I named this blog The Gray Market, after all. So it's no surprise that this week I found myself in a familiar bind over iconic Los Angeles gallerist emeritus Margo Leavin's $20 million gift toward renovating UCLA's graduate art studios. The school's board of regents rubber-stamped the project this past Tuesday. But after turning it over in my head for a few days, I've ultimately decided that this philanthropic union isn't quite the shining triumph it first appears.
Make no mistake: On a micro level, this is a wonderful thing for UCLA, its future MFA students, and their faculty. I visited the existing grad-program studios last spring, and I can tell you that they often feel closer to a Depression-era shantytown than a 21st-century higher-education complex. As I moved between individual studios, I kept expecting to find students taking a page out of the resourceful imates' handbook by jerry-rigging batteries into makeshift lighters.
Leavin's philanthropy will go a long way toward changing that sad circumstance. Her eight-figure donation puts UCLA nearly two-thirds of the way to the renovation's estimated $31 million finish line, and it sounds like her initiative and passion were crucial to reviving a plan that had lain dormant since 2011. The partnership between Leavin and UCLA also makes sense in the context of her career. She didn't just operate a path-breaking gallery in Los Angeles for 42 years. She also represented longtime UCLA faculty member John Baldessari for much of that time. So for personal and professional reasons alike, it's fair to describe her gift as something between "reasonable" and "laudable."
And yet, at the same time, I also can't help but think about the opportunity cost of her pledge, in the context of both American higher education and American contemporary art. You can partly credit (or blame) Malcolm Gladwell for this. Over the course of the last few weeks, I've been listening to his (foreseeably excellent) podcast, Revisionist History, which re-examines past events, ideas, and personalities that Gladwell believes we've collectively misunderstood. The three most recent episodes comprise a miniseries on the unacknowledged short-circuits inside the US college system. It may still be the world's best, but Gladwell argues convincingly that it's also malfunctioning in important ways.
The conclusion, which went live a day after UCLA's board of regents officially approved the MFA studio renovation project, focused on what has become the maddening norm in university-level philanthropy this century: The schools that receive the biggest donations are the ones that need money the least. Exhibit A in Gladwell's prosecution is Nike founder Phil Knight's $400 million gift to Stanford this past January––a gift that swelled the school's endowment to a gargantuan $22 billion. For a sense of scale, that's $3.5 billion more than the 2016 budget that President Obama proposed for NASA.
In the episode, Gladwell contrasts Knight's philanthropic targeting with that of Hank Rowan, a little-known industrial entrepreneur who donated $100 million to New Jersey's tiny Glassboro State College in 1992. I'm simplifying his argument, but Gladwell essentially believes, as Rowan did, that philanthropists make the biggest impact in the educational realm by strengthening the weakest links in the chain, not the strongest. Stanford and its grads would have gotten by just fine with a $21.6 billion endowment. But for the students of Glassboro State––later renamed Rowan University, in its great benefactor's honor––$100 million is transformational. And with $400 million, Knight could theoretically have been transformational in at least four different places, if not more.
All of which leads us back to UCLA. Despite its ramshackle facilities, the school's MFA program has consistently ranked as one of the top 10 in the country for roughly two generations. More importantly, within the art industry, it is universally recognized as one of the select few grad institutions that still regularly launches artists' careers. In a brand-driven era and a brand-driven art market, the program has effectively become a scholastic brand.
So, like Phil Knight's Stanford glitter-bomb, Leavin's $20 million gift only adds strength to strength. Yes, UCLA's gorgeous new grad-studio complex will dramatically enhance the day-to-day experience of its future MFA students. But its funding and its very existence also reinforce the "winner takes all" trend taking hold in every sector of the 21st-century art industry (as regular readers of this blog know all too well). In a sense, the check Leavin wrote represents eight figures worth of missed opportunities.
As a Hank Rowan counter-example, Leavin's fellow Angeleno Andre "Dr. Dre" Young last year pledged 100 percent of the royalties from his latest solo album to build a new performing-arts and entertainment center in his poverty-scorched home city of Compton. I can't help wondering how much more of an impact Leavin might have been able to make if she'd set her philanthropic sights on a similarly flimsy link in arts education. There is no easy answer to that question, of course. But unless we're satisfied with the current trend lines in this space, then it's our responsibility to ask not just where the chain is weakest or strongest, but also where it ultimately leads.