Behind the Scenes: Development at LACMA

Posted on: May 23rd, 2012

For many, the inner workings of a museum are often obscured. ForYourArt steps into their offices to talk about what really happens.

Abby Bangser, director of Major Giving Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) since 2009, fell into development unsuspectingly, having interned at Chicago’s David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art and The Renaissance Society while in college and then working at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Passionate about fostering the museum’s growth, Bangser facilitates a variety of experiences for LACMA’s patron groups, enhancing donors’ interaction with not only art, but also the institution and Los Angeles’ cultural landscape at large.

Alexis Johnson: Describe what you do.

Abby Bangser: I am the Director of Major Giving Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), a position that was created to oversee and foster the growth of the museum’s patron groups. These groups provide significant funds for our general operating budget as well as for purchases of art. LACMA does not have sizable endowments to purchase art, so we have to fundraise for almost everything that we would like to acquire. This often involves engaging with collectors or art enthusiasts who would like to give back to the city’s largest encyclopedic museum. In return for their generosity, I ensure the organization of experiences that provide a behind-the-scenes view of the museum and special access to the wider Los Angeles art community. In a given week, I might take our young professionals group, Avant-Garde, to a fashion designer’s studio in downtown Los Angeles, organize a cocktail reception at a museum trustee’s home, manage a meeting with volunteers working on a fundraising auction that includes such opportunities as a portrait commission with L.A.-based artist Sharon Lockhart (we just auctioned this at our recent Collectors Committee weekend where it sold twice!), and sell tables and tickets to LACMA’s annual Art + Film Gala.

Johnson: How did you get involved with development initially?

Bangser: Completely by accident!  I did my undergraduate degree in Art History at the University of Chicago and throughout my time there I interned at both the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art and The Renaissance Society, a non-collecting contemporary art museum that has organized first museum exhibitions for many artists who have gone onto much lauded careers. The Renaissance Society has a very small staff and the internship included a whole range of experiences. At one point I was asked to organize an event that would increase awareness for the Society among the University’s undergraduate students. At the time, we were preparing for an upcoming exhibition with the Chicago-based photographer, Laura Letinsky. Letinsky’s photographs often exquisitely portray the leftovers of dinner parties. I decided to use Letinsky’s work as inspiration for the event and scoured Chicago’s most popular bakeries for dessert donations. We filled the galleries with cupcakes, candies and anything decadently sweet. We artfully arranged the goodies in Society-commissioned artists’ editions that they also sell to raise funds (a great source for unique gifts). I had no sense that this could be part of a professional museum role, but was instantly inspired to conceive of the overall event concept and think through coordinating rows of lollipops with Jenny Holzer sushi platters that read “Protect Me From What I Want.” After time at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and then moving to New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum had an opening in Development and I took it.

Johnson: What are some of the projects you’re currently working on?

Bangser: One aspect of Development that I enjoy is that you always have many projects underway.  LACMA’s Director, Michael Govan, and our curators have incredible ambitions and we do not want a lack of funds or audience to stand in the way of the world experiencing their ideas. We keep fundraising!

Johnson: What has been your favorite or most gratifying project to work on so far?

Bangser: At LACMA, for sure, a favorite project has been restructuring a long-running acquisitions program, Art Here and Now (AHAN), to include a collectors group that would fund the acquisitions. For over 40 years the museum has annually supported acquisitions of the work of young or emerging L.A.-based artists and has built an incredible legacy. With the prices of contemporary art rising, when I first arrived to LACMA, I heard of the struggle to have enough funds available for this critical acquisition while accomplishing all of the other departmental acquisitions goals. In collaboration with the museum’s Modern and Contemporary Departments, we conceived of AHAN: Studio Forum as a group where the collectors would need to join and contribute annual dues in order to participate. Now in its second year as AHAN: Studio Forum, members spend two full days together, this year visiting eleven artists’ studios. The members’ annual dues fully fund the museum’s AHAN acquisitions and it is the only acquisitions group that we are aware of in which the participating members have the opportunity to visit every studio considered for an acquisition just as a professional curator would.

Johnson: Who needs development services? It’s not just for big institutions, right? 

Bangser: Development has become quite necessary as budgets become tighter and the cost to fulfill an institution’s mission increases. Universities have some of the larger development departments and recently they have started using the term “Advancement.” I tend to prefer “Development,” as for me, raising funds is the first and foremost part of the job; however, I also believe that successful development departments at cultural organizations are a place to build community and craft artful experiences for the organization’s supporters. Joining a museum’s patrons group might give you access to a private collector’s home that inspires your own personal collection, an art-fair preview becomes an annual pilgrimage, and a trip to Cuba to tour a Biennial with a museum curator becomes an unforgettable week with family and friends. I know that some may question the effort to build such experiences for only a few, but I hope it can be kept in mind that the funds raised from these supporters allow for the rest of the organization’s programming and operations to exist.

Johnson: What advice do you give to people who are interested in volunteer opportunities at museums? 

Bangser: I would dive right in! LACMA provides many different ways to become involved. We appeal to many different audiences and have museum groups that visit artists’ studios and others for young professionals, docents, collectors and students.

Johnson: Why do you love about working at a museum?

Bangser: A museum is an incredible platform. You have a visitor who has chosen to be there to absorb art and culture. What could be better? We should use every inch to share a different way of looking at the world. I believe in a museum that extends beyond the galleries to curated coffee bars, parking structures, and visitor tickets. Whenever I travel, my husband and I plan to visit every museum we can find—often the smaller and more overlooked, the better (an absolute favorite is the father-and-son-run Museo Casa Mollino in Turin). One interesting question for larger institutions is how to translate the authenticity and focus of a smaller institution to a larger scale and still offer the sense of intimacy that can be so profound.

Johnson: What do you wish more people understood about what goes on behind the scenes at a museum?

Bangser: That museum membership is an incredibly rewarding life experience. ”Behind-the-scenes” there is a whole team of museum professionals who carefully consider how to enliven the museum experience for its members and make it a place for educating and building community, while at the same time raising critical funds to support the institution’s programs. When you visit any museum, or join as a member (even better!), you are becoming part of that community too, and our hope is that it becomes a frequented part of the visitor’s life. Spend a Saturday (at LACMA that can be your Saturday evening too!) and visit an exhibition as a first date, take time for a coffee and begin a conversation about the art you have seen, stop in for a lecture or film screening and end up at a members’ cocktail reception. Museums are much more than their exhibitions and collections.

by Alexis M. Johnson

Image courtesy of Abby Bangser.