Interview with Pamela Besnard – Keynote speaker for ArtsRaise 2023
Learn more about Pamela as she shares her journey and insight as Chief Advancement Officer at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Pamela Besnard works for one of the world’s most acclaimed arts institutions, the Whitney Museum of American Art. Appointed as the Chief Advancement Officer in 2019, she oversees the planning, management, and success of the Whitney’s comprehensive fundraising efforts, including individual and planned giving, corporate membership and sponsorship, special events, foundation and government grants, donor stewardship, and Board of Trustee relations.
Pamela’s impressive fundraising career extends over 20 years, including leadership roles at three major educational institutions, and an early career in managing publishing sales.
Ahead of Pamela’s keynote presentation at this year’s ArtsRaise Conference, she shares a glimpse of her insights and experience in arts fundraising with us.
- What initially drew you to want to work for the Whitney Museum of American Art?
I was immediately intrigued when I learned of the opportunity at the Whitney and was drawn by the Museum’s remarkable recent achievements at the time, most notably the move downtown to the new Renzo Piano building. I was impressed to learn that the Director, Adam Weinberg, and the Board were already looking forward and had approved a five-year strategic plan in 2017, when they could have rested on their laurels after a major building campaign. I was also attracted by the dedication, motivation, and experience of the senior management team. I was thrilled at the prospect of making an impact on the Museum’s future. Before coming to the Whitney, my most recent project had been fundraising for the construction of the new Pomona College Museum of Art where I had an especially strong partnership with the museum director and the principal donor which added to my interest in working at the Whitney.
I am also an art-lover and long-time member of a number of museums, independent cinemas, and performing arts organizations. I am lucky to be in this leadership role at the Whitney that melds so well with my intellectual curiosity and interest in modern and contemporary art and culture.
- What do you believe is unique to arts fundraising, versus other industry specific fundraising?
The biggest difference in arts fundraising is the immediacy of the experience and, in the most positive way, the visible impact—on exhibitions, education and public programs, special programs, and on the general operations of the institution—all in a space open to the public six days a week. The event-driven schedule is more intense in arts fundraising and the frequency with which donors experience the benefits of their relationship with the institution is much greater given the nature of the venue and activities. The significant fundraising from numerous patron groups, and fulfillment of benefits associated with those groups, is more dominant in arts fundraising. Last but not least, at the Whitney we are very often working with living artists which can impact every event or program differently.
- At the Whitney, what sort of collaborations and relationships have you and your team built to ensure successful fundraising?
In addition to a long-time Director who has built such strong relationships with all our funders, we have a committed and long-serving staff across individual giving, foundation relations, and corporate giving and special events. This tenure is a critical to sustaining relationships over many years and building new ones. We have collegial relations with our counterparts at museums across New York, the country, and internationally which bolster the benefits our donors feel in their association with the Whitney. Our diverse corporate sponsors have also supported the Whitney for many years, and we have relatively new business relationships in the Meatpacking district who view the Whitney as an attractive brand and partner. The three “legs of the stool” in our fundraising—individual, corporate, and foundations– rose and fell during the pandemic but fortunately not at the same time! As corporate events and rentals ground to a halt during Covid, individuals gave more and loyal foundation relationships lessened restrictions on funding to support general operations. We’re in a good position of not relying on any one donor or source of funding in a disproportionate way.
- For anyone thinking of working in arts fundraising, what are some key steps they can take towards flourishing in the industry?
Internships are a terrific opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of fields to get a feel for the workplace and arts fundraising. These programs are more developed than in the past and, at the Whitney, we now offer stipends (donor-funded) for both the summer and academic year programs, in an effort to broaden and diversify the people who can participate. We love mentoring interns in our department and the chance to demystify the actual work of fundraising. For those who are early or mid-career in another field, comparable skills or experience could include client-facing work, proposal development, events-based work, marketing, and excellent verbal and written communications. Working with high-level volunteers or Board members is also good experience. In addition to being knowledgeable about arts and culture, it’s important to be well-read on political, social, and economic issues in the news– in order to converse intelligently on a range of issues with people from different backgrounds.
- Going forward what are some of the challenges the arts may face in the future, when raising money?
The importance of fundraising in the arts will only grow as the needs and aspirations of our organizations grow. Competition for donor dollars will also increase, as the number of deserving not for profit organizations grow, not only in the arts, but in many other sectors—climate, social welfare, human rights, and education, for example. Thus, the challenge of making the most compelling case for relevance and demonstrable impact becomes even greater, and recruiting and nurturing the best talent who can make that case most effectively is key. The pandemic and the consequent additional pressure on fundraisers have caused staffing challenges and the need to rebuild teams. There’s no question that the changing landscape will demand innovation, skilled collaboration, and the ability to inspire donors, volunteers, and staff to engage in the excitement and promise of our institutions.
You can hear Pamela talk more about fundraising at the 2023 ArtsRaise Conference. Pamela will present a keynote on “What makes a great fundraiser? Common misconceptions and insights on success”, and a session on “How the Whitney Museum of American Art does fundraising”.
ArtsRaise is a new arts and culture fundraising conference presented by Fundraising and Philanthropy (F&P). The conference will gather arts fundraising professionals, sponsors, philanthropists, and foundations over two days in Melbourne on 28 and 29 March 2023.
Discounted earlybird tickets are still available and close Thursday, 16 February 2023, 6pm (AEDT).