A Battle between Ownership and Stewardship (Act 1) – Golden Age Beginnings

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The Story of the Philadelphia Art Alliance in Several Acts

The Wetherill Mansion, designed by renowned architect Frank Miles Day and built in 1906 on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. It was home to Christine Wetherill Stevenson, who left the house to the Philadelphia Art Alliance, a nonprofit organization founded by Wetherill in 1915.

Several years before the pandemic, I was engaged by the Philadelphia Art Alliance, an arts nonprofit, to consult to help them navigate a growing crisis of organizational sustainability. The below account, released serially over the course of the next week or so, is my account of the evolution of the Alliance–the challenges of relevance, solvency, mission reinvention, and ultimately, the process of dissolution and disposition of complex resources. It contains a constellation of lessons in how private sector ideas of ownership, inappropriately applied in the nonprofit sector, can significantly pervert or utterly subvert the process of stewardship, despite well intended actors. For this account, institutional names have been retained, as all involved are public charities and all transactions are a matter of public record. References to private individuals are made only through title or role. 

Act 1 – Golden Age Beginnings

The Philadelphia Art Alliance was founded by Christine Wetherill Stevenson in 1915 as a membership organization supporting the cultivation of fine and performing arts—music, dance, poetry, and visual arts. Stevenson was heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint Company, a pioneer in the manufacture of “white lead”, an integral ingredient in paint, and other industrial chemicals. Her family’s entrepreneurial success led to the affordability and mass production of the lead paints that allowed even the most modest household to add a hue of success to its abode and workplace, contributing to the great American narrative of progress and opportunity over the 20th Century. Like the fate of many early industrial families (and capitalists up to the present day), the unintended consequences of their zeal to innovate and extract were catastrophic. Today, lead contamination from paints pervades more than 80% of the buildings in the U.S. constructed before 1978, the year lead paint was outlawed.

Christine Stevenson would never know the harm her family’s manufacture wrought and was thus not drawn to philanthropy out of a sense of baronial guilt, religious zeal, or civic duty. For her it was simply the proper social thing to do. She pursued the role of matriarchal philanthropist that pervaded the upper echelons of industrial American society, which was, of course, entirely patriarchal. Men made the money. Women of the upper classes spent the money running elaborate households and engaging in various social welfare activities—philanthropy. Many of these activities became the first modern nonprofits (as we know them today), when the concept of the tax-deductible “charitable” donation became enshrined in law in 1917. It is this social DNA, I would speculate, that has led to the fact that the U.S. nonprofit sector has largely been the invention of women: still today 75% of the nonprofit workforce are women. Despite this fact, women remain in the minority in nonprofit leadership; the patriarchy is still alive and well, very much to the detriment of social good.

The Art Alliance’s multidisciplinary mission was largely a response—intentionally or subliminally—to the relative dearth of institutional arts and culture offerings available at the time. In 1915, the city’s cultural landscape was sparse, with the Philadelphia Orchestra (1900) and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1805) dominating, complemented by a smattering of much smaller institutions. The other titan of Philadelphia’s cultural firmament, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, would not open its doors until 1928. The idea of a multidisciplinary institution was novel at the time, and its original ambitions were great. Alliance members initially purchased land in the 1800 block of Walnut Street (a stone’s throw from Stevenson’s home on Rittenhouse) where they hoped to build a shining new multi-arts facility, to be modestly christened The Art Center of America.

Alas, the reach of this dream exceeded its grasp, and America did not get its Art Center, at least not on Walnut Street. Instead, Stevenson was compelled to settle for her family’s more modest 15,000-square-foot mansion, designed by Frank Miles Day, which was purchased by the Alliance in 1926 following the death of her father. 

A bas-relief of Christine Wetherill over a doorway in the Wetherill Mansion.

This founding moment and its focus on real estate is important, as the Alliance was not envisioned to be a “collecting” institution, focused on amassing a certain trove of artworks for public display and perpetual care. Instead, it was to rely entirely on its ability to produce programs: readings, concerts, lectures, recitals, exhibits, all with borrowed art, artists, scholars, and critics–today called a Kunsthalle (Art Hall), the term-of-art for a museum with revolving exhibition space but no collection of its own. To such institutions, especially in the early 20th century, before the idea of “site-specific” programming arose out of the 1920s European avant garde, venue was critical, if not the defining resource. It was certainly the only financially value-able resource of significance titled to the organization for the fulfillment of its mission. This fact will become increasingly important to our story as it unfolds.

The act of acquiring a piece of real property by a nonprofit organization, whether through donation or purchase, is imbued with complex dynamics, more so than any other type of asset. In the history of modern political economy and the construction of contemporary notions of ownership, real property–land the buildings attached to it–is the main protagonist. Over the 13th through 15th centuries, the transition from the feudal economy of Europe to early-modern, bourgeois, free-market capitalism centered on land as the pivotal resource and engine of economic change. In the Middle Ages land had been offered by lords for individual use by serfs for their self-subsistence and means of sustaining labor and production value for the lord and communities under his domain. (Reference to the feudal system of owner-lords and subservient tenant farmers is preserved to this day in the rentier term “landlord”.) While tenant farmers were not “owners” in the sense of title holding, they were allowed to live off their land, providing a certain social and economic security. 

Starting in 13th century, and unfolding over the subsequent two hundred years, a complex but distinct process unfolded, referred to as the Great Enclosure, in which forces mustered by the nobility, ruling classes, and church began to consolidate individual tenant farms into vast tracts of land, some becoming the prototypes of modern, large-scale agro-farming; others being left fallow as entails to great gentry estates. This removal of majority populations from their individual means of subsistence created a landless class of people who had no means of market valuation other than their own labor–the modern proletariat. This historical shift, perhaps most famously documented by Karl Marx in his Capital: Critique of Political Economy (1867), ushered in the modern market-driven economy under which we labor to this day.

Real property traces a particularly potent through line for the history of the United States starting, of course, with the violence of colonization by Europeans and expropriation of land from the indigenous inhabitants of North America from the 17th through late 19th centuries. In the early days of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln passed one of the most important pieces of legislation in the American history, The Homestead Act of 1862, which turned over 270 million acres of land, mostly in the mid to far west of the continent, to private owners and speculators, supercharging the expansion of American settlement and commerce. This moment, one of the largest single acts of private enclosure of land in history, became the foundation of America’s global economic power and industrial might. 

Later, after World War II, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (“G.I. Bill”) and the later creation of the government-backed mortgage financial institutions of Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac established private real property ownership as the ultimate hallmark of social status and progress in the Great American Promise. Today, as a result, most individual net worth in the U.S. is held in the present and speculative value of real estate. We remain a real estate-obsessed culture, evident everywhere you look from the fantasies of HGTV and lifestyle television, to the fact that we cannot conjure an image of financial prowess without the backdrop of a shining office tower or metastasized suburban mansion.

As the archetypal and most powerful asset-to-be-owned, real property is inextricably intertwined with the idea of private ownership and title holding. This powerful association has always rendered a deeply distorting effect on the relationship between real estate (as an asset class) in the context of nonprofit stewardship and title holding. Regardless of whether owning real estate as a nonprofit is truly, objectively, essential to the fulfillment of mission and social purpose, nonprofit facilities often become their manifest destinies and ultimate arbiters of success.

Adding to the intrinsic valorizing power of real property has always been the approbation of philanthropy. Seduced by the promise of monumentalizing their philanthropy, seeing their names etched in stone, donors are always far more ready to contribute capital to bricks-and-mortar than to operations or programs (including the very building they just paid to build!). It’s therefore not surprising that nonprofit leaders, boards, and funders find it difficult to part with real property, even if they are drowning in its maintenance. This was the mighty struggle faced by the later stewards of Christine Wetherill’s limestone legacy, which proved to be both the beginning and the end of the Philadelphia Art Alliance.

Stay tuned for Act 2 – Evolution to Descent.