When Buffalo Bills founder Ralph C. Wilson died in 2014, he left behind a commitment in his will to improve life in Western New York and the money to help make it happen.
To the stunned delight of more than a dozen arts and cultural institutions, that promise is about to become reality for them and their patrons.
The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation today will announce a $100 million donation that will provide funding in perpetuity to support many of the region’s most well-known attractions.
“I have never seen a grant in the cultural sector that is so far-ranging and communitywide. You are almost speechless,” said Daniel Hart, executive director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, one of two Buffalo organizations that will receive $500,000 annually. “It will serve so many people and touch so many lives while impacting our community in so many ways.”
The foundation is providing nearly $60 million to establish a permanent endowment, which will dispense $3 million in unrestricted operating funds ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 annually to 13 of the region’s largest arts and culture nonprofits, 11 of them in Buffalo.
The 11 Buffalo institutions receiving funding and the amounts are the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo Zoo, Explore & More Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children’s Museum, Buffalo History Museum, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor and Darwin Martin House.
The other recipients are the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester and the National Comedy Center in Jamestown.
“What they are doing is absolutely amazing for our community and our cultural organizations. It’s unheard of,” said Michelle Urbanczyk, Explore & More’s CEO.
Each organization is required to work with the Community Foundation and TDC, a Boston-based nonprofit management consulting and research firm, to develop “metrics and benchmarks” to meet set goals. The funds can’t be used for programs, debt relief or new capital.
An additional $750,000 will be spent annually, with $500,000 in grants for small and midsize organizations in Western New York and Monroe County, and $250,000 to the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo to manage and operate the endowment and grants program.
The reasoning behind the extraordinary donation is simple, said David Egner, president and CEO of the Wilson Foundation: “Arts are economic development.”
That justification validates what arts and cultural organizations have long contended.
“The facts are that they are economic generators themselves,” Egner said. “Talent retention and attraction is so important and the arts play that role. Nobody wants to live in a place without arts and culture.”
The Foundation will also announce $5 million each for expansion projects underway at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester.
“The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation’s actions demonstrate a profound understanding of the importance of arts and culture to our region’s economic and social vitality,” said Janne Siren, director of the Albright-Knox, the other arts organization that will receive $500,000 annually.
Board Chair Mary Wilson, Ralph Wilson’s widow and one of the foundation’s four life trustees, said “arts and cultural institutions, collectively, contribute to the very fabric of community identity, making them essential in retaining and attracting top talent that fuel our business community.”
She said her late husband shared “a deep and personal appreciation for the arts.”
“Through the Foundation’s economic development focus, we are proud to invest in the long-term health of these organizations as economic drivers – and in the cultural vibrancy of Western New York,” Wilson said.
Jim Boyle, the Wilson Foundation’s vice president of programs and communications, said the foundation is “committed to inclusion and access” and will work with the organizations to attract more varied audiences.
The Wilson Foundation is also announcing today that it is giving $100 million to support arts and cultural organizations in Detroit and Southeast Michigan.
The dual announcements rival what the Wilson Foundation did in October 2018, when it gave $100 million to each region to transform a park and expand trails. This donation joins that one as the largest ever given in Western New York. Billionaire and Western New York native Jeffrey Gundlach has contributed $62.5 million, the most by a private individual, to the Albright-Knox expansion now underway.
The foundation roughly divides funds evenly between Western New York, Wilson’s second home during the 54 years he owned the Bills from 1959 to 2014, and Southeast Michigan, where he grew up in Detroit and later lived in Grosse Pointe.
The foundation began in 2015 with $1.2 billion to be shared between the two regions. That was the amount Wilson set aside from the sale of the Bills and his estate for philanthropic efforts at the time of his death in March 2014.
But thanks to success in the stock market, the foundation’s finance committee expects the total amount spent to be in excess of $2 billion by the time it’s obligated to shut down in January 2035, Egner said.
The foundation’s trustees began talking about this initiative in the second week of March 2020, days before the country started to shut down over Covid-19.
The original idea was to divide $50 million between both regions.
That changed in January, when one of the trustees at a board meeting said that amount should be doubled.
“What we are seeing in these institutions and how they’re struggling, we need to do more and it needs to be permanent,” Egner recalled the trustee saying.
That view lasted for two days before another trustee said the $100 million now to be split between the regions should be doubled again to “make it really meaningful,” Egner said.
“The trustees in a matter of three days gave us a heart attack when they quadrupled the original number,” Egner said with a laugh.
Boyle said selecting who the recipients would be and how much to give them was a difficult and imperfect process.
Ultimately, he said, various criteria was considered “and then we threw some darts.”
Representatives of several arts and cultural organizations said they were still absorbing the news, but saw the additional funding as a boon for bringing back or retaining staff at a time when the pandemic has limited operations.
Urbanczyk of Explore & More said the $200,000 she can expect in 2022 will prevent further layoffs and may allow a position or two to be brought back. The annual donation is even more meaningful, she said, because the children’s museum receives no dedicated private or government funding.
Using the funds in an unrestricted manner is particularly welcomed now, during tough times, said Mary Roberts, executive director of the Darwin Martin House.
“General operational support can be some of the hardest money to raise,” Roberts said. “It is incredible to have this extra layer of support in light of the pandemic and reduced travel and tourism.
“It’s so amazing for what they are doing for so many institutions,” she said.
Marisa Wigglesworth, president and CEO of the Buffalo Museum of Science, praised the Wilson Foundation for taking the time to understand how nonprofits operate and what they need.
Melissa Brown, the Buffalo History Museum’s executive director said the dedicated source of funding arrives at a time of deep economic uncertainty.
“During the pandemic, everything we thought was ‘guaranteed’ in our budget, like $70,000 in special events, all changed,” Brown said. “So this is such a huge investment in ongoing stability.”
Scott Propeack, acting director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, already has a plan for how to use the funds. He wants to hire a curator to develop “a series of satellite exhibitions” in neighborhood settings, such as a library, bank or community center.
“This is a plan I have wanted to move forward with, and it will give us the initial money to do the research into locations for exhibitions and to look for community partners,” Propeack said.
Michael Murphy, president of Shea’s, said the annual operating funds will free up other money that will now be able to be used for programming.
The Wilson Foundation’s funding is a vote of confidence, said Terry Alford, executive director of the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor, where several projects are getting ready to begin.
“This is exciting news for our community, and we’re very thankful to the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation for seeing our worth and relevancy to the region and to our country,” Alford said.
Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He’s also a former arts editor at The News.