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Carl Hamm of the Art Museum
Carl Hamm is the new deputy director for development and external affairs at the St. Louis Art Museum. (Christian Gooden

In late 2008, the economy was slipping deeper into recession just as the St. Louis Art Museum was poised to start hitting up its biggest donors for money to build a massive expansion project. Facing grim fundraising prospects, museum commissioners shelved the plan.

What a difference two years made. The economy might not have fully rebounded, but the museum's prospects sure have. The campaign started in December 2009 — one year later than originally scheduled — and the museum is close to meeting its $145 million goal of contributions and pledges.

In February, the museum announced that Emerson had upped its contribution to the campaign to $5 million from $3 million. It's the biggest corporate cash gift in the museum's history. (This week, the museum said it has received $142 million in commitments.)

For a fundraising professional, it's a good time to join the museum's senior staff, says Carl Hamm, the museum's new deputy director for development and external affairs. He's quick to point out that the campaign's heavy lifting happened long before he joined the staff in January, and that he's in a good position to build on that success.

A big part of Hamm's job is soliciting big-money donations from St. Louis' established companies and foundations, but he also oversees the museum's marketing and membership programs. Hamm said he expects the 2013 opening of the museum's new 200,000 square-foot wing will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand the rolls of members and donors.

Before starting at the museum in January, Hamm held a similar post at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, where he oversaw an $80 million capital campaign to support the an expansion there. Hamm previously worked in development at the Dallas Museum of Art.

What role have local businesses played in the fund-raising campaign's success?

Local businesses and the leadership representing local businesses have been important to the success of the project. The Emerson gift is representative of numerous others, although it was a larger gift in terms of size...

Nationally, giving to charities and to nonprofits seems to be driven more by giving from individuals and families, and that's certainly the case with this project. While the corporate support is very important — it represents the business community's investment in this project — the support we've received from individuals and families represents the lion's share of the cumulative gifts. We have six gifts at the $10 million level and above, which is a huge testament to the strength of this project.

There's just as much competition for giving as there has ever been, but there are fewer dollars. How does an old, established institution like the museum stay competitive at a time of shrinking corporate philanthropy?

It has been my experience in talking with corporate donors that they're becoming much more strategic in how to leverage what may be fewer dollars. ... They have to be judicious about how they choose to invest.

(An expansion) project like ours will benefit millions of people over the next few years and the generations to come. And it will make St. Louis an even stronger magnet for businesses because a strong art museum is essential to attracting top talent from around the world. I think businesses understand that.

The art museum gets a great deal of money from the zoo-museum district. Is that a hindrance to development because, no matter what, you get a baseline amount of money? Or, does it help because you can tell donors their gifts won't be used to pay the electricity bill?

That's a great question, but first there's one thing about this (expansion) project I want to emphasize: The entire expansion is funded through private gifts, not through funds from the (zoo-museum district)...

I think donors are interested in supporting organizations that they confidently believe are stable, and certainly the ZMD funding allows us a degree of stability. We can go into each year thinking strategically about what we want to do, rather than coming from a position of scarcity and just trying to get by.

People who donate a considerable amount of money might also have art that they think is worthy of being displayed in the museum, although the curators might disagree. Is there a graceful way to decline a gift?

That's a curatorial decision, not mine. The museum is committed to collecting and preserving great works representing all time periods and all types of art. But there's no connection between the acceptance of a work of art and gifts to support the institution.

What will be your fundraising focus in two or three years, when the campaign is finished and the new building is open?

This campaign has many purposes, including the tangible results. But I think another important aspect of this campaign is to engage and re-involve people who might not have been so actively involved in the museum in recent years. Two or three years from now, even more people from St. Louis will have a new connection to the museum in a way they haven't before.

Obviously, this building project is exciting, but it's even more exciting for me to think that thousands of people will have a new relationship with the museum, perhaps because they haven't been here in some time or they made a gift to the project, that will result in a longer term relationship.

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