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H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest, 1930–2018
H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest, 1930–2018

H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest

The Museum mourns the passing of H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest, 88, who served as Chair of the Museum’s Board of Trustees from 2001 to 2010, and thereafter as a Trustee Emeritus. Few individuals have given so graciously of their time and so freely of their resources, and fewer still have had such an enormous impact on the Museum’s history. Gerry’s leadership contributed greatly to the Museum’s effort to strengthen its endowment and to renew and expand its facilities, including the landmark main building.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, and raised in Scarsdale, New York, and on his family’s farm in New Jersey, Gerry ultimately adopted Philadelphia as his home, and it is here that he made the greatest impact as a civic leader and philanthropist. Educated at Washington and Lee University and Columbia Law School, he began his legal career at the New York law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, and subsequently became corporate counsel to the late Walter Annenberg’s Triangle Publications. He long credited Annenberg for giving him his start in business. In 1973, along with two other investors, Lenfest purchased the Suburban Cable and Lebanon Valley Cable television operations from Annenberg. The company was sold to Comcast in 2000, after which he and his wife Marguerite committed to give most of their wealth away to charitable causes.

As a philanthropist, Lenfest was drawn early to the Philadelphia Museum of Art because of his passion for art and by the recognition that the Museum serves as an economic driver in the city. He was also impressed by its rich history, during which it has been supported by generations of generous donors whose gifts enhanced the Museum’s collection and strengthened its programs and educational activities. Among those whose service spoke most compellingly to him were the civic leader Eli Kirk Price, who as Chairman of the Museum’s Board of Trustees, championed the construction of its new home on Fairmount in the early decades of the twentieth century; the dynamic and long-serving Director of this institution Fiske Kimball, who completed our main building, finished its interiors, and expanded our world-renowned collection; and philanthropists Leonore and Walter Annenberg.

In 2006, the Lenfests gave crucial support to the city-wide initiative to keep Thomas Eakins’s Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) (1875) in Philadelphia and described saving the work as a matter of civic pride. This reflected their deep appreciation for American art, which included a strong interest in the work of African American artists, notably William H. Johnson. Gerry led the Board in adopting strategic plans and, in addition to the development of the comprehensive Facilities Master Plan, was instrumental in launching new digital technology initiatives and collaborative marketing efforts to attract new and more diverse audiences. The Lenfests also launched a challenge grant for donors to match their gift one-to-one, in order to endow twenty-nine staff positions that span curatorial, conservation, library, archives, education, publishing, and other functions. This transformational gift, known as The Lenfest Challenge, encouraged twenty-seven donors to name positions that are vital to the Museum’s mission and the excellence of its programs.

In March 2010, during an interview in his Conshohocken office, Gerry reflected on his philanthropy and work with the Museum over the course of a decade. “I never had much wealth until 2000, after the sale of Suburban Cable,” he said. “At that time, sitting in my kitchen in Huntingdon Valley, I read a book by a person who studied philanthropy—Waldemar Nielson. It was called Inside American Philanthropy: The Dramas of Donorship.

“He had two tenets that stuck with me: Don’t create a family foundation, and don’t create a foundation in perpetuity, but rather have the satisfaction in your lifetime during which you can see the impact. So, we’ve given most of our wealth away in the last ten years and I’ve seen the impact. It gives you a good feeling to know that the wealth you’ve accumulated can be used for good purposes…because the ultimate achievement in life is to feel good about yourself, and wealth carries responsibility.”

Asked what had given him the most satisfaction in his work with the Museum, he mentioned its evolution over the period of nine years when he served as chair, its economic impact, and its importance in the life of the City of Philadelphia. The endowment, he said, effectively doubled from 2001 through 2010. He remarked upon several other milestones, including the acquisition of the offsite art storage facility for the Museum’s collection; the renovation of the main building’s exterior envelope; and the creation of the new parking garage and the Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden. He also noted his work with the Annenberg Foundation to place the Museum on a sound financial basis. He drew energy, he added, from the challenge of addressing three key objectives, including the renovation and expansion of the Museum’s facilities under the Master Plan; expanding the Museum’s reach across diverse communities; and taking the Museum forward into the digital age.

Lenfest had originally intended to step down as Board Chair prior to 2010, but with the unexpected death of then Director Anne d’Harnoncourt in 2008, he not only extended his term and put interim leaders Gail Harrity and Alice Beamesderfer in place, but he continued to chart the Museum’s course forward for a smooth transition. Two years later when he passed the Board leadership to Constance M. Williams, he expressed great pleasure, noting the appointment of a new director, Timothy Rub, and what he would describe as “this new team that will continue the evolving of excellence.”

As the interview concluded, he was asked one final question: “Is it true that you still mow your own lawn in Huntingdon Valley?”

Lenfest smiled and replied, “True, but we don’t have much of a lawn, because we live under a lot of trees—we’ve lived in the same house for forty-four years.” He then paused and added, “And we also fly coach.”

Gerry Lenfest will be long remembered and deeply missed by the Museum’s Board of Trustees, leadership, and members of the Museum staff. He was an exemplary Board Chair, a model citizen, and an inspiration for his home city of Philadelphia.

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