The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gets an $80 Million Gift, Tilting Its Focus Toward Asia

Donated by Florence Irving and her late husband Herbert Irving. it's the largest gift in recent memory.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Commons.Wikimedia.org.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has received a landmark $80 million donation from trustee Florence Irving and her late husband Herbert Irving, the founder of the food distribution company Sysco. It’s the largest individual gift in the institution’s recent history. (David Koch’s $65 million donation in 2013 was the last donation that came close.)

The money will be used to establish an unrestricted endowment fund for acquisitions and smaller, individual funds that will aid in the acquisition of Asian art, as well as related programming and publications. The Irvings have been among the museum’s largest supporters of Asian art; their name already adorns a dedicated Asian wing at the museum. In 2015, the avid collectors donated 1,200 works of art to the department.

A spokesperson for the Met did not immediately respond to a request to detail exactly how the $80 million donation will be distributed across the departments. But the new gift will support the art of China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Himalayas, with particular attention paid to Chinese decorative arts and Indian and Southeast Asian art, according to the museum.

“This additional gift is truly transformative for the Met, and will ensure that the legacy of scholarship, programming, and collection-building [the Irvings] have been so instrumental in building will continue to thrive,” said the Met’s president Daniel Weiss in a statement.

The Irvings in the Florence and Herbert Galleries for Chinese Decorative Arts, 1997. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In addition to today’s donation to the Met, Florence Irving also announced gifts of $700 million to Columbia University and the New York-Presbyterian hospital for cancer research. Their collective donations to these three institutions now total over $1 billion.

The latest news is a particularly significant vote of confidence for the Met, which has worked to fight its way out of a deficit and bounce back after the tumultuous departure of its former director, Thomas Campbell.

The announcement was released alongside the Met’s latest annual budget report, which suggests that its finances are stabilizing. The museum had projected a deficit of $15 million by the end of the fiscal year, but instead ended with a $10.1 million shortfall.

The museum has also added nearly $300 million to its endowment, which now stands at around $2.9 billion (the largest of any museum in the US behind the Getty). Weiss told the New York Times that the museum is on track to eliminate its deficit by 2020.

Daniel H. Weiss © the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017.

Daniel H. Weiss © the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017.

However, there is still plenty of work to do. Weiss told the Times that uncertainty remains surrounding the institution’s management of the Met Breuer, the former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which the Met has committed to lease until at least 2023.

“It’s a bigger commitment to make it run than we’d thought,” Weiss told the Times. “If we continue beyond eight years, we want to have a sustainable operating model and we haven’t done that yet. We’re now looking at how to do that more efficiently. There is a significant amount of fund-raising involved.”


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