But when I began discussions with German artist Wolfgang Laib and Klaus Ottman, director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art and Curator at Large, in October 2011, it was clear that Laib’s poetic work, composed of such modest materials, was perfect for The Phillips Collection.
Laib’s signature pieces, life-sized rooms lined with beeswax, are cocoon-like chambers that offer a personal, meditative encounter, coupled with the comforting scent of beeswax. Klaus and I immediately noticed that Laib’s work has a material presence similar to Mark Rothko’s paintings, which are often meant to extend out toward the viewer, inserting an almost physical sensation of color between the picture and its audience.
“A wax chamber has a very deep and open relationship to Rothko’s paintings,” the artist would tell us later, because to enter a wax room is to be “in another world, maybe on another planet and in another body.”
So it was with these sentiments in mind that we decided to commission Laib’s Wax Room, a fitting complement to the museum’s cherished Rothko Room, to be the Phillips’s second permanent installation.
Laib arrived in Washington, DC on February 18, 2013, with 400 pounds of beeswax and, with help from the Phillips staff, began installing the much anticipated wax room. The 6x7x10-foot space, with its walls and ceiling lined with the fragrant wax and illuminated by a single bare lightbulb, opened on March 2 to much interest. Well received by the public and critics alike, it even served as an inspiration to the museum, as it experiments with more programs and exhibitions that highlight the idea of well-being, simplicity, and holistic experience in art.
Though the results of this aromatic installation have most certainly been sweet, the road to achieve it posed a number of challenges to the museum. As with any major acquisition, our beloved wax room had a price attached to it, and the funds necessary for such an investment were not readily available.
The Phillips staff and I were faced with finding a new, strategic avenue to garner support for a unique work of art and earn the financial backing necessary to make it a reality.
The museum’s development and communications teams began looking for a fundraising arena most suited to our needs, taking into account the unique qualities of Laib’s work as they considered forums that would allow the greatest reach to interested donors. Their research was influenced by a $15,000 challenge grant from artists Brian and Paula Ballo Dailey, longtime friends of the museum who were interested in contributing but wanted the Phillips to seek ways to get young professionals involved as well. With that in mind, the team decided that Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing website, could be our fundraising mechanism.
In our effort to reach a new audience, and in keeping with founder Duncan Phillips’s philosophy of the museum as an “experiment station,” the Phillips staff, specifically development’s Jane Kestner and communications’s Cecilia Wichmann and Amy Wike, created a robust Indiegogo page.
Many activities promoted the campaign:
The Phillips hoped that contributors to the project—even those who donated just $25—would feel ownership of the work and be part of a creative community that invested in the future of the museum. The list of perks for contributors included custom-designed, honey-scented scratch-and-sniff postcards, tickets to the Phillips’s 2013 Annual Gala After Party, and an opportunity to join the artist for an exclusive celebration—and each level of giving was labeled with a fun, bee-related title.
While we were hopeful that the Indiegogo campaign would prove to be the right choice, we never imagined that it would be such a huge success. With the generous donations of 119 participants, we raised $16,185, surpassing our $15,000 goal, in just over one month.
The campaign was successful not just in the funds raised, but in the emergence of real ambassadors for the museum. In fact, a full quarter of those who gave had never donated to the museum before. In retrospect, we found that our emphasis on our donors as stakeholders—as true investors in this installation—was the strongest incentive for new donors, especially the young professionals, and ultimately led to the campaign’s success.
Looking forward, the Phillips is exploring more opportunities to share a sense of “ownership” with our audiences through crowdsourcing campaigns, perhaps as early as this fall, when we mark the five-year anniversary of our Intersections series celebrating contemporary art and artists.
I’ve always loved Wolfgang’s exceedingly subtle work. It’s marvelous that—with the help of so many members of our communities—we’ve brought his magic into the heart of The Phillips Collection.
Wolfgang Laib, Wax Room (Where have you gone–where are you going?), 2013. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Photographers: Rhiannon Newman and Lee Stalsworth