Publishing and real estate baron Sam Zell just boosted his rank in the Billionaire Boys Club. Yesterday, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago announced that Zell plans to donate $10 million to the museum. In a statement released by the MCA, The Zell Family Foundation, where his wife Helen Zell serves as the Executive Director, will endow the museum through the Zell Fund for Artistic Excellence.
That fund, according to a statement from MCA Director Madeleine Grynsztejn, “fuels every aspect of our new initiatives.” The $10 million gift nearly matches the MCA’s total contributions received in 2011, topping off at $10,050,909. Indeed, a grant of that size would be the envy of any museum, though the MCA is particularly in need. As The New York Times reports, the museum will use half the funds to pay off its construction debt, which it incurred during the 1990s while building its current home along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
The Zell Fund brings to mind another magnanimous museum gift, the Broad Foundation’s $30 million promised donation to MOCA in 2008. It’s not just the gifts’ size that bears a resemblance (though yes, $30 million is a lot more than $10 million)—the careers and philanthropic pursuits of the organizations’ Midwestern-born founders nearly mirror each other. Both made their fortunes through real estate, list the University of Michigan as their alma mater, and have connections to Los Angeles (the Broads are located there, while Zell owns the Los Angeles Times). Prior to their large donations, Eli Broad chaired MOCA’s board (1979 -1984) and Helen Zell chaired the MCA’s board (2004-2008).
Broad’s gift, though, continues to stir up controversy, as it came with many strings attached. Seeing as how neither one of the Zells are standing board members, it is unlikely they will try to control the museum in the same way Broad did.