A Museum Grows in Chicago
By Katie Liesener ’03 | Published in the summer 2014 issue of Millikin Quarterly magazine.
Nike Smyth Whitcomb ’66 looks the part of a polished museum director. Warm smile, professional, no-nonsense manner. Blond hair that converges into a neat chignon. Her office, on Chicago’s stately Wacker Drive, is lined with photos of a handsome, graying man – her husband of 30 years. She has just returned from previewing the American Writers Museum’s first traveling exhibit when suddenly the enthusiastic Tri-Delta sorority coed still inside bursts forth.
“It was totally cool!”
That same afternoon Whitcomb sprung into action, taking photos and interviewing designers for the museum website. It was the kind of work she once did as an intern at the Decatur Herald & Review, where an editor gave her this advice: “Find the human angle to make a story real.”
“That’s the way I think about everything,” she says. “How do I make this real?”
Making the intangible real is Whitcomb’s challenge as the new executive director of the American Writers Museum (see sidebar). She must raise money for a museum that does not yet exist. The museum board chose Whitcomb based on her five decades as a fundraising force, raising hundreds of millions of dollars for nonprofits during her career. Again and again, Whitcomb asks people to suspend cynicism and disbelief, see her vision of a better future, and help make that vision real.
If she achieves her goal, the U.S. will garner its first museum to celebrate American literary heritage, and Chicago will notch a cultural landmark.
I’m banking my entire reputation on this,” she says. The museum is a prime project for Whitcomb, who reads voraciously. As a Millikin student, she read all the books for her European novels class in the first week. Even now, her red handbag perpetually totes a book. She reads two to three volumes per week to explore subjects of interest, most recently including Judaism, Parisian history, meteorology and Frank Lloyd Wright. “There’s a lot of talk today about specialization,” she says. “At Millikin, I learned how to be a generalist, how to acquire knowledge. You don’t have to be an expert if you know how to find the answers you need.”
After graduating from MU with a bachelor’s degree in English, Whitcomb worked in fashion, education and government. She was hired as executive director of Chicago’s American Diabetes Association chapter when she was 25. In that role, she organized the city’s first bike-a-thon, raising a then remarkable $100,000 in a single day. Whitcomb attributes her success to three traits. “I’m not shy,” she says. “I have no problem asking people to give to something I think they should care about. I also have no problem hearing ‘no.’”
At the time Whitcomb began her fundraising career, she was an anomaly. Fundraising was an overwhelmingly male profession; she knew no other women in senior management. When she became president of the Chicago chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), a colleague suggested she chair meetings from the side of the table, lest her cohorts bristle ata woman presiding over them. She took that advice, but shortly after she helped form a networking group for women in development to help them overcome barriers against women in the field. That networking group has since spawned chapters in other cities and, coincidentally or not, fundraising has transformed into a female-dominated profession. In 1981, Whitcomb formed her own fundraising consultation business but surprisingly soon found herself in desperate need of funds. Her heating bills had soared to $800 a month, and her fledgling business was at risk.
Fortunately, she found herself on the receiving end of a donation when her future husband, Jamie McKechnie, paid her bill so she could grow the business. Whitcomb had met McKechnie, then executive director of the National Hearing Association, to discuss fundraising strategies, but soon they were dating. She calls his bailout a lifesaver. “If it hadn’t been for Jamie,” she says, “I would not have made it.” Since then, Whitcomb’s company has helped raise funds for arts organizations, hospitals, shelters, conservation groups and other causes, including Millikin’s “Advancing the Vision” capital campaign that raised more than $125 million from 1996-2006. She sees her work as her legacy. “I walk down the street and can see which churches are in better shape, or libraries or schools,” she said. “That’s a point of pride for me. I want to make a difference in the world. This is how I do it.”
Last November, Whitcomb saw the AWM museum director position posted in the newsletter of her women’s networking group. She applied and was offered the job within two weeks. But there was a heartbreaking complication: Her husband was dying. Jamie had developed pneumonia and other health issues following what should have been a routine surgery. Whitcomb had attended his hospital bedside every day for months. Caretaking was her full-time job. When she told him of the offer, Jamie encouraged her to take it. No longer able to speak, he mouthed, “I’m proud of you.” “I think he saw it as an opportunity at a time that was going to be hard,” she says. “He knew he wasn’t getting better.” McKechnie died in January.
The museum’s first goal – raising $10 million by 2016 – has been called “ambitious” by one nonprofit consultant. But Whitcomb believes donors will care about preserving the values of American writing: freedom of speech, creativity and the search for identity. In Jamie’s final days, Whitcomb read to him at his bedside. She picked passages from “The Monuments Men,” a book about U.S. soldiers saving artworks from Nazi destruction. Together, they saw a powerful picture conjured by the words she read aloud: men hoisting masterpieces on their backs for generations they would never see. “If we can spark that same intention in even one out of every hundred people who come to the museum; a vision for how they can be better, have a better life for themselves, for their children – that is powerful,” she says.
The Sun Also Rises on a New National Museum
China, Germany, Brazil, Scotland and Korea have writers’ museums; the U.S. has none. The American Writers Museum aims to change that.
According to the museum’s executive director, Nike Smyth Whitcomb ’66, the American Writers Museum will celebrate all forms of American writing, from novels and non-fiction to speeches and screenplays. Toward that end, artifacts will be less important than engaging the public – an urgent cultural mission when more than 25 percent of all Americans have not read a book during the past year.
The idea for the museum originated with Malcolm O’Hagan, an Irish immigrant and retired manufacturer who was inspired by the Dublin Writers Museum and was stunned to learn the U.S. had nothing similar. In 2010, O’Hagan formed the American Writers Museum Foundation, which recently created its initial touring exhibit on Chicago writers.
The museum is slated to open in phases. For the first phase, the planners and Whitcomb seek a 10,000-square-foot space in an extant building in downtown Chicago. The ultimate goal is a 60,000-square-foot, stand-alone structure. At press time, $1.3 million had been raised for the project.
Katie Liesener ’03 is a freelance writer who recently relocated to Chicago after teaching college-level writing in the Boston area.