Gwendolyn Perry Davis, deputy director of development at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago

with Jacelyn Kee

Gwendolyn Perry Davis is the Deputy Director of Development for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA). As she describes, the museum’s development team is the engine working assiduously in the background, generating the seed-funding and “fiscal fuel” for new projects, and, over the longer term, powering the growth of the many unique programs that MCA offers to the public. In a conversation with Gwendolyn in February 2016, she offered incisive insight to aspiring arts administrators, on what it takes to develop the projects we love.

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“Development work is fundamentally about building relationships—between an institution, and a group of individuals who are interested in supporting it.”

With an illustrious background in development work in the higher education sector, Gwendolyn Perry Davis joined MCA in 2011. She remarked that regardless of the industry, be it in higher education or in the arts, development work is fundamentally about building relationships—between an institution, and a group of individuals who are interested in supporting it. She further pointed out that development work can be seen as leveraging the ethos of the U.S. Constitution: the nation’s political and legal system tacitly encourage private citizens to contribute to public projects and needs. By helping to forge connections among individuals, communities, and institutions, and between the private and the public, development work is about linking potential resources to needs. Thus, if the fostering of relationships is purposeful and done well, the relationships built can endure difficult times and last a lifetime.

For the growth of the arts community, Gwendolyn opined that it is best served when the community has as many people and as broad a public to view and engage with artworks. To do that, the associated costs with accessing the arts must be reasonable for most. And this is only possible with private sponsorship. To find the right donors, the development team reaches out to a wide variety of people and presents on why it is worthy to support a diversity-oriented arts institution like the MCA, elucidating on the many opportunities available for their involvement. Gwendolyn perceives that it is important to find ways to invite a varied mix of people to MCA’s space and to always be present in pointing out the uniqueness of MCA’s mission.

In the context of a contemporary art museum such as MCA, development work is described by Gwendolyn as three-pronged. It endeavors to support the museum and the artistic community, as well as current and future donors. Consequently, the relationships that need to be built are amongst these three constituents. With MCA’s unique identity as an art museum that works with living artists, the development team takes pride in introducing these artists and their projects to the donors. Thus, the artists who collaborate with MCA are not only exposed to their audiences but also matched with donors who are passionate about and are invested in their thoughts and ideals.

When asked if development work is more of a supporter or an initiator of change, Gwendolyn highlighted that while development work is undeniably foundational to most programs, projects, and operations, and often seen to play a supporting role, it is an effective and compelling catalyst for change when done well. She explained that her team listens carefully to both donors as well as the many professionals in the museum. On one hand, most donors are thinking about how they might leave a legacy or change the world through their contributions. Meanwhile, museum professionals are eager about realizing the intrinsic values embodied by their programs. Her team’s job is about finding the best match. And, when a match happens, it is about creating spaces for deeper conversations to take place. At its best, these conversations transpire into meaningful projects supported by enthusiastic and committed contributions, offering immense value to the community-at-large.

In her final words, Gwendolyn suggests that any aspiring arts administrators interested in development work need to go beyond knowing how to see and build connections. With the fluid and ever-changing nature of conversations, they should also develop strong communication skills. Knowing how to be sensitive to nuanced intentions, to sieve out key ideas, to create a common set of language, and to facilitate conversations between disparate groups of people is crucial. Finally, as development work is essentially about relating to people, one should also be infinitely versatile, open, and flexible to changes. At the heart of bringing fiscal strength to an arts institution like MCA, it is about being compassionate with others.

  • with Jacelyn Kee

    JACELYN KEE is an artist, art educator, and public administrator, whose interests lie in their intersections.