Fundraising Woes Continue for Eisenhower Memorial

Controversial design by Frank Gehry has raised less than $5 million in five years

Design for the Eisenhower memorial by Frank Gehry / Eisenhower Memorial Commission
Design for the Eisenhower memorial by Frank Gehry / Eisenhower Memorial Commission
April 26, 2016

Five years after the Eisenhower Memorial Commission began spending big bucks on a private fundraising campaign, the group has raised from private sources a maximum of $4.7 million out of the estimated $150 million it needs to complete the controversial memorial by architect Frank Gehry.

The commission recently posted a list of donors on its website, giving new insight into its private fundraising campaign. The list was divided by donation amount, from the lowest level for donors who gave between $5 and $999, to the highest level for donors who gave more than $5 million.

The only donor listed at the highest level was "Citizens of the United States of America," a reference to the $66 million in taxpayer money the commission has received since its inception in 1999.

Two donors, the Taiwanese government and the Starr Foundation, are listed at the second-highest level, for sums between $1 million and $4,999,999.

The Taiwanese government has said it is donating to the memorial to honor Eisenhower’s "staunch support for Taiwan’s security" during his presidency, which coincided with the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and Taiwan. The island country has donated to other memorial projects in the past, including $1 million for the Pentagon 9/11 memorial in 2005.

The Starr Foundation is a major philanthropic foundation, giving large sums to a number of memorial projects, including $25 million to the World Trade Center memorial and $2 million to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, La.

Both Taiwan and the Starr Foundation donated $1 million to the Eisenhower memorial, amounts on the extreme low end of the second-highest fundraising category, according to an email obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

In total, the commission listed only 168 donors from the years-long fundraising campaign. One hundred thirty-three donors were listed at the lowest donor level; an additional 19 donated at the second-lowest level, giving between $1,000 and $9,999.

Notable donors include former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (in the $10,000 to $24,999 category), Fox News host Greta van Susteren (in the $5 to $999 category), and Home Depot CEO Ken Langone (the biggest individual donor, giving between $500,000 and $999,999).

A spokesperson for the commission did not disclose the exact amount it had raised from private fundraising. However, based on information now available, the amount must be between $2.9 million and $4.7 million—an underwhelming sum for the commission, which began spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a fundraising campaign in 2011.

That year, the commission began paying the firm Odell, Simms, & Lynch to pursue an aggressive fundraising campaign. While another firm had advised the commission to set "an achievable" fundraising goal of $10-$15 million—cautioning that potential donors felt "the price tag was much too high for the memorial, and there is concern that the architect chosen will result in even higher costs"—the commission hired Odell, Simms, & Lynch to raise $30-35 million by 2015.

The fundraising effort was projected to raise an average of $7 million per year between 2011-15. The commission did not meet this fundraising target in any of the past five years. Assuming the commission has raised the maximum $4.7 million, it has raised an average of $940,000 per year since 2011.

This fundraising pace lags significantly behind the fundraising of past memorials.

For example, the Pentagon 9/11 memorial raised $22 million from private sources in five years, or $4.4 million per year on average; the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial raised $110 million from private sources in 12 years, or $9.1 million per year on average; the World War II memorial raised $197 million from private sources in 11 years, or nearly $18 million per year on average—although most of the funds were raised during the last five years, when the memorial benefitted from high-profile celebrity endorsements and a sudden groundswell of small-dollar donations.

The Eisenhower Memorial Commission appears to be mimicking the fundraising strategy used by the World War II memorial.

Last year it announced a list of celebrities who would help raise funds for the memorial, including newsman Tom Brokaw and actor Tom Hanks, whose televised appeal on behalf of the World War II memorial led to a massive fundraising haul. The commission also announced that World War II hero and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who oversaw fundraising for the World War II memorial, would spearhead its fundraising effort. The five-year fundraising campaign is now "fully underway," the commission reported to Congress last year.

Indeed, the commission’s fundraising appears to have picked up in the past year, possibly helped by its star-studded cast of supporters and a pair of government agencies, which gave final approval to the memorial design in the summer of 2015. While the commission has not divulged exact numbers, it may have raised as much as $4.2 million in 2015—a windfall compared to past years, but still short of the $6 million it projected for 2015.

When the commission set its fundraising goal of $30-$35 million years ago, it assumed that Congress would pay the rest of the memorial’s roughly $150 million price tag. However, the public funding spigot shut off in 2013 due to controversy over the memorial’s unusual design by architect Frank Gehry, which was panned by some art critics and prominent members of the Eisenhower family.

"Americans are simply not opening their wallets to what is essentially a monument to architect Frank Gehry's ego instead of a memorial to Ike," said Bruce Cole, a leading critic of Gehry’s design who is a member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission.

The memorial design features a monument core with three statues of Eisenhower depicted as president, Supreme Allied Commander, and a lanky Kansas farmboy. The memorial’s backdrop is a series of 80-foot columns suspending a woven stainless steel "tapestry" of a Kansas landscape.

Congress has appropriated no construction funds for the memorial since 2013, although it has appropriated roughly $1 million per year to pay for the commission’s operating expenses.

Opposition from well-positioned members of Congress has raised the possibility that the commission could have to fund the memorial’s construction entirely through private fundraising. Given past performance, this would be a high hurdle for the commission to clear.

"It is inconceivable that the Eisenhower Commission will raise enough private funds to complete the memorial. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in la la land," said Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society.

The financial hurdle would be even higher due to a law that requires memorial sponsors to donate "an amount equal to 10 percent of the total estimated cost of construction" to offset maintenance costs if they plan to construct the memorial mostly with private funds. The law would add over $10 million to the commission’s private fundraising obligations, more than double what it has raised in five years.

The commission is striking a defiant tone despite these challenges. Dole, the fundraising front man, told the Associated Press last year that the commission will raise $150 million if it has to.

"To heck with 'em," Dole said of the memorial’s critics. "We're going to go ahead and build it."

It would take the Eisenhower Memorial Commission 160 years to raise $150 million at its current pace, assuming that the commission has raised the maximum $4.7 million the past five years.

A spokesperson for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission declined to answer questions for this article.

Susan Eisenhower, a relative of Dwight Eisenhower who has criticized the Gehry design, declined to comment on the commission’s fundraising effort, but expressed gratitude "to those who have committed themselves to building a lasting memorial to Ike."