Lampy's Limpert Funds Art World
His favorite Lampoon prank took place at the Fogg Art Museum.
A precocious Poonster purchased a cheap vase from a local dime store, then headed into the museum and casually dropped the “sculpture” over the railing into the museum’s great hall. The vase smashed, and a cohort cried out, “My God! The Ming vase!”
“It was pandemonium,” Limpert recalls, laughing. “I think if you tried it today you’d be suspended, expelled, put on probation.”
Limpert’s attitude toward art, or at least toward museums, has changed over the years, as he found his niche in fundraising for cultural institutions in New York City. Most prominently, he served as the director of development for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the 1970s and 1980s, raising over $50 million in donations and increasing membership to more than 50,000, without dropping any of the artwork in the process.
While he admits that he entered the field knowing little about art history, Limpert says that by now he’s become a proponent of modern painting.
“I do believe that modern art is one of the great contributions of the 20th century. Now, having said that, I also feel that the 20th century is the worst since the 14th,” he says with a laugh.
In his 30-year career—during which he moved from the MoMA to the New York Botanical Garden to Lincoln Center—Limpert worked to strengthen ties between the corporate and cultural worlds, pursuing major sponsorship deals with some of the country’s most powerful businesses.
The move to fundraising and publicity as a career may have had little to do with his undergraduate literary aspirations, but Limpert says that he looks back fondly at his years at Harvard, when the “gentle days” of the 1950s still inflected the campus with a New England sense of reverence.
PLAYING IN THE YARD
Limpert’s freshman roommate recalls that Limpert was a young man passionate about writing, if not his academics.
“I remember one thing Jack said when I first met him,” says William J. Cowperthwaite ’55, who lived with Limpert in Wigglesworth I-31. “He said when you go to Harvard, no one’s going to ask you what rank you were in your class.”
Indeed, Limpert never pursued the honors track in the classroom. An English concentrator, he later regretted not switching to History and Literature.
“The Harvard English department of my day was not good, and I’m told by those who are in the know that it’s still not good,” Limpert says.
His one scholastic triumph came when famed literary scholar Douglas Bush awarded him an “A” on a term paper, “The Language of Commerce in the Love Poetry of John Donne.”
“The comment was worth everything,” Limpert says. “‘You have taken a very small subject and handled it very well.’”
An avid writer in college, Limpert was elected president of the Lampoon—a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine—in 1954.
“I can’t say the things that I wrote for the Lampoon are hilarious,” Limpert says. “I was amused, let’s put it that way. In those days if the writer is amused that was quite sufficient.” (Some things never change.)
The Lampoon is “much more professional I think today than it was when I was there,” Limpert says. “We thought of ourselves as gifted amateurs. I’m not sure we were, but we thought of ourselves that way.”
Limpert also says that the Harvard campus was a more urbane place when he was a student 50 years ago.
“Those were very gentle days. We didn’t have the experiences of the ’60s to guide us. We were a very sedate group,” he says, adding that he feels “badly that there is a lack of what I will call urbanity to Harvard today.”
In addition, Limpert laments the loss of what he calls “New England and Boston influence” on Harvard life. While he considers some aspects of Puritan sensibility “laughable,” Limpert says that its values promoted the ideal of a serious, earnest life.
“I really do feel very strongly that some of that Puritan influence was very valuable,” he says. “Don’t forget that Harvard started as a place to train ministers and it’s gotten about as far away from that as you can possibly get.”
And Harvard, to the Brooklyn-born Limpert, also offered a reprieve from the unbridled materialism of New York City. He says he remembers Boston as a place where intellect was privileged above all else.
“New York was always a place where the making of money was the most important thing in the world,” Limpert says. “Contrast that with the Boston of [the 1950s], where the most important thing was the life of the mind. In Boston they ask, ‘What do you know?’ In New York, they ask, ‘How much are you worth?’”
Nonetheless, Limpert would choose to return to New York after his four years at Harvard were finished.
As Commencement loomed, Limpert began mulling over his career options. John H. Updike ’54, his predecessor as Lampoon president, encouraged his literary pursuits.
“He said to me, ‘What are you thinking of doing when you get out of college? Aren’t you going to write?’” Limpert recalls. “I say, ‘John, anything I can think of to say about life I can say in three sentences.’ He said, ‘Well, then write those three sentences.’”
Limpert decided to stick with writing, though not in the style he had cultivated at Harvard. He started to work at a public information office for the U.S. Army, where he developed a crisp, clean form learned from the news reporters on assignment there.
Limpert then made the switch to international advertising and marketing, working at prestigious New York firms McCann Erickson and Ted Bates & Co. In Manhattan he regularly attended lectures at the Harvard Club, and made a contact close to the MoMA board of directors. He was approached in 1973 and offered a position as director of development and fundraising for the museum.
“I said, ‘Goodness gracious, I don’t know that much about modern art.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of people who know about that,’” Limpert recalls.
Despite his naiveté, his professional determination and a sense of civic duty compelled him to accept the position—even though “every important and sensible person that I knew said, ‘Whatever else you do, don’t take this job.’”
And as a New Yorker born, raised, and schooled in Brooklyn, where his father worked making extracts for ice cream, Limpert says he wanted to improve the city’s cultural institutions.
“I joined [the MoMA] because I felt that at the time New York City really needed help, and the Museum of Modern Art was one of the jewels of the city,” he says. “If you helped it you might be helping the city.”
Cowperthwaite notes that the college-aged Limpert could be “very self-effacing,” and the trait has proved useful in his professional pursuits. Limpert underplays his role in the fundraising process, choosing instead to offer his thoughts on the utility of the institutions he has helped benefit.
But Limpert declines to describe himself as a philanthropist.
“You do the job for the time you are involved and then...people come along and they hopefully build on what you’ve done and they improve,” he says. “None of these nonprofit organizations would survive without these volunteers who spend a lot of time on their boards.”
Yet Limpert’s contribution to the museum has continued to stand out. Membership at MoMA shot past 50,000 during his tenure, annual giving rates more than tripled, and the museum raised more than $50 million for its 50th anniversary capital campaign.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Limpert says.
AT THE VANGUARD
Limpert’s specialty is cultivating corporate sponsors, an innovative approach in an industry that had long depended on individual benefactors. Fundraising, among other industries, became more media-savvy after the 1960s, employing the sophisticated marketing techniques of Madison Avenue to attract new donors. Limpert, with his background in advertising and public relations, was the perfect man to merge the fields.
In the mid-1970s, during what Limpert calls “the golden era” of corporate involvement in the arts, he began to develop strong relationships between New York’s cultural and commercial sectors. Limpert says that he pulled together a group of charity-minded Fortune 500 CEOs to promote corporate investment in the MoMA. The committee generated over $3 million in gifts.
The same approach led to continued success after Limpert left the MoMA in the mid-1980s. As vice president for development at Lincoln Center, he helped to generate a major sponsorship deal with General Motors, and his work at the New York Botanical Garden resulted in the first substantial gift dedicated to renovation and expansion of the garden’s buildings.
Despite his success with corporate donors, Limpert cautions that there are potential problems with a heavy reliance on gifts from businesses.
“My experience over the years has been that the nonprofit world occasionally takes on things from the for-profit world, and sometimes takes on very bad things,” he says. “I think there is a certain cult of personality in the cultural field that is not unlike some of the more visible CEOs of the corporate world. And I think that’s wrong. I think the best of the cultural leaders, the people who place their institutions before themselves, they’re not self-aggrandizing.”
And Limpert says that today’s chief executives are a different breed from those he worked with at the MoMA 30 years ago.
“The emphasis on the bottom line was not then what it is now,” he says. “The guys I worked with, they had long-range views about what was good for the country, good for the city. The right word is, frankly, cultivated.”
Today Limpert works as a consultant. He counsels museums, science institutes, educational outlets, and other nonprofits on fundraising.
He says that he enjoys his work immensely. “The psychic rewards—traditionally the main reason for doing nonprofit work—have been enormous,” he wrote in his 50th reunion report.
“I have no plans for retirement because I have no role model for it,” Limpert says. “My father lived to be 104 and was active practically to the very end of his life.”
He notes that many retirees fill their time by doing “good works—but I’ve been doing these good works for a very long time already.”
—Staff writer Michael M. Grynbaum can be reached at email@example.com.