News and Features

How Dallas Does Philanthropy, Perot Museum-Style

SMU’s Willard Spiegelman writes about the Perot Museum in The Wall Street Journal. Although his piece does extol the building’s eye-popping design by architect Thom Mayne and its “hyper” active, kid-friendly exhibitions, the real interest – this being the Journal — lies in the money, especially as it showcases the rich doing good. The museum’s financing “would be possible only in a city like this one, which cherishes capitalism and philanthropy in equal measure.”

What he means, citing many of the museum’s wealthy patrons, is how the Perot escaped the usual non-profit fundraising grind:

All these benefactors made it possible to open the museum on Dec. 1, well ahead of schedule; to put it on firm financial footing; and to meet the estimated $14 million annual budget, which includes such educational outreach as lab opportunities for local students whose schools may lack even microscopes. No public money, no bonds were needed to build and to sustain the museum.

Of course, a big reason for this success is that unlike, say, the AT&T Performing Arts Center or the Dallas Art Museum, the Perot highlights the oil-and-gas industry. In cities around the U.S., most ‘science and nature’ or ‘science and history museums’ are actually ‘science and the local, long-established corporate culture that donated to this museum.’  They give a chance for business leaders to ‘tell their story’ in handsome fashion. For example, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is, primarily, an energy-and-cattle museum. Not surprisingly, most such institutions in the Northeast and the Rust Belt feature a high interest in manufacturing. The Henry Ford Museum in Detroit has many exhibitions about 19th- and 20th-century mechanical innovations, but its heart is America’s car culture.

But as Spiegelman also notes, the museum may attempt to gloss over, say, the controversies involving energy-industry fracking. Yet the main interests of the wide-eyed boys racing everywhere tend to be the same: “Space and Dinosaurs.”