In a city where $500-a-plate dinners are as ubiquitous as broken Metro escalators, the idea of a museum fundraiser is hard to separate from tuxedos, dancing, and mediocre Chardonnay. But for its upcoming permanent installation, a room sculpted from beeswax by German artist Wolfgang Laib, the Phillips Collection has turned to a new platform to entice donations: crowdfunding.
Using the website Indiegogo, the Phillips is attempting to reach a goal of $15,000 in donations for the Laib Wax Room (UPDATE: The target has been reached, although the page will continue to accept donations for the next two days). The campaign has been assisted by a gift from artists Brian and Paula Ballo Dailey that matches donations dollar for dollar up to the $15,000 total. As is common with crowdfunding, there are incentives for donors depending on the sums given. For $25, donors are recognized as Hive Helpers and get a custom-made scratch-and-sniff postcard featuring an image of the finished room. A donation of $250 in the Worker category gets the giver a book about the Wax Room signed by Laib as well as an annual Contemporary membership to the Phillips (a $110 value).
Phillips director Dorothy Kosinski says the campaign is in keeping with the museum’s mission to engage people within its community. “We’re thinking a lot about how to be really innovative and creative, how to reach out to the public,” she said in a phone interview. “When this idea was floated, it seemed to fit with the underlying experiential theme of Wolfgang’s work, which brings people into an environment and allows them to participate in it.” In addition to revamping its website in 2012, the Phillips has long been active on social media and has its own free smartphone app for visitors exploring the collection. Last May it launched a competition encouraging people to submit Instagram images modeled after photos in the exhibition “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard.”
Crowdfunding for museums isn’t new, although it has yet to be fully explored in the Washington area. The New York Times reported in 2010 on small institutions such as the Neversink Valley Area Museum in Cuddebackville, New York, and Philadelphia’s ToonSeum raising funds via Kickstarter. And in France even the Louvre has gotten in on it, offering a number of different incentives to donors in its campaign to raise $3.4 million for a pair of 13th-century ivory statues. A guestbook on the museum’s website allows donors to leave their messages of goodwill online (“I am happy to contribute to the acquisition of a national treasure,” says one).
Regardless of whether the museum reaches its $15,000 goal, when the Laib Wax Room opens March 2 it will be the Phillips’s first permanent installation since the Rothko Room was inaugurated in 1960. “In order to fully fund it we need a lot more than this, but it would be terrific to reach the goal—a real shot in the arm,” says Kosinski. “I think we’re doing several things at once: Educating people about Laib and the importance of the piece, allowing people to participate and feel like they’re part of our community, and then, very practically, raising funds.”
Representatives at the Phillips declined to say how much the museum had paid overall for the work, but emphasized the generosity of donors, the artist, and New York’s Sperone Westwater Gallery, which donated the 800 pounds of beeswax used to build the room. “We’re not a place that has deep pockets, and everything we do is a challenge,” says Kosinski. “I think it’s an out-of-the-box experiment, and we’re grateful that people are paying attention.”