Visitors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture will pass the Robert Frederick Smith Orientation Pavilion on their way to the Walmart Welcome Center.
If they go down the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Staircase, they can nosh at the “Sweet Home Café generously supported by Kaiser Permanente,” catch a performance in the Oprah Winfrey Theater or enter the David M. Rubenstein History Galleries.
If they decide to go up — using the United Technologies Corp. escalator — they will find the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts and galleries named for Michael Jordan and Family, Time Warner, and the Rhimes Family Foundation.
Welcome to the 21st-century Smithsonian, where the founding donor, James Smithson, gets trumped by corporate giants and captains of industry. The Englishman whose bequest launched the museum complex 170 years ago has his name on a small sidewalk sign outside. But today’s philanthropists, including Gates, Rubenstein and Smith, and 20th-century titans, like Rockefeller and Ford, have their names in brass letters on walls throughout the building.
When the museum opens Saturday, 27 spaces — from the grand staircase to the VIP reception suite — and six programs will be named for brands such as Nike, 3M, American Express, GE and Target and less well-known organizations including the Kovler and Stavros Niarchos foundations. In addition, the lobby features a list of all the founding donors.
The large number of names reflects the Smithsonian’s need to raise more private funds, said Amir Pasic, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. The new museum cost $540 million, with Congress footing half the bill.
“Some of the museums that were built more than 30 or 40 years ago would have gotten more government funding,” Pasic said. “Naming benches, chairs, pieces of lab equipment is increasingly common.”
The fact that so many individuals and companies signed on points to the perceived value of the project, he added. “People love the notion that you would have your name associated with the National Mall, connecting yourself to something so lasting and . . . historic.”
Partnering with the museum was an easy decision for Prudential, which is sponsoring the Hometown Hub, an interactive element in the “Power of Place” exhibition. The museum approached the insurance company after it gave $1 million in 2009 to fund the construction. This year, Prudential gave $2 million more for a five-year sponsorship of the multimedia hub, which highlights the importance of place and region to African American culture.
“What the museum is trying to accomplish is in direct alignment with our values and beliefs,” said Prudential Foundation President Lata Reddy, noting that the company has been an anchor in Newark for 140 years. “We have seen firsthand the power of place, and what opportunities a place can afford people, or not. During challenging times, we’ve been a part of rebuilding, standing shoulder to shoulder with the African American community. We know we have a role to play in society.”
Naming opportunities are definitely on the rise at the Smithsonian. When the Renwick Gallery reopened last year after an extensive renovation, it named nine galleries for private donors. At the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, 15 donors are acknowledged in spaces throughout its Carnegie Mansion, which reopened in 2014 after a three-year renovation. In addition to galleries, the staircase, shop, study room, cafe, education center and garden and terrace are linked to Target, Henry Luce, Nancy and Edwin Marks and Peter Krueger.
The National Museum of the American Indian had been the newest Smithsonian museum, opening in 2004. The federal government paid two-thirds of its construction costs, and 82 founding donors were listed inside. Donors are also linked to the outdoor fire pit, entry pavilion, theater, reference library, gift shop and “pause areas.” Inside the theater (named for the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation) there are 135 seats with donor labels.
Although these deals help the museum raise much-needed funds, the agreements also benefit the companies. Bank of America, which is stalwart supporter of museums, signed on early by giving $2 million and sponsoring the Save Our Treasures program before the museum broke ground. It was one of four corporations to give $2 million to sponsor this weekend’s opening ceremonies.
Rena DeSisto, the bank’s global arts and culture executive, said the corporation understands the educational power of all museums and appreciates this museum’s diversity.
“I am hopeful it creates a sense of tolerance for diversity, and embracing of diversity instead of fear of it,” DeSisto said. “Museums are places where people are drawn to think, to learn and to reflect. I think they can enhance your world view, open up your mind and your life to different possibilities.”
Pasic said associating yourself with a diverse project such as the African American Museum can be a powerful symbol. “People find value if they see themselves — if it’s an ad or a campaign — they feel the institution recognizes them.”