LINDA WISE McNAY ’77 BUILDS RELATIONSHIPS TO ADVANCE INSTITUTIONS SHE BELIEVES IN
You could say that it was Linda Wise McNay’s love of Transylvania that led her to her current position as director of advancement at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
When she graduated in 1977 with a major in business administration, McNay didn’t want to leave the Transylvania community, so she decided to seek work experience elsewhere that would prepare her to someday return and work for her alma mater. After working in personnel for Hyatt Hotels in Chicago for two years, she returned to Lexington, and campus.
“I went to Transy and asked, ‘Okay, what do you want me to do?’,” she said.
That eagerness to try new things launched McNay into a career that has taken her to many interesting places. At Transy, she started as assistant director of admissions, a position she loved, but one that required her to travel extensively.
“I had a huge area,” she said. “Every Sunday we’d pack and leave and I’d be out of town for five days. I’d come in the office on Saturday morning, and I’d leave again.”
In hopes of cutting back her travel time, she applied for a job in development and was appointed director of the annual fund. “I didn’t have any experience,” she said, “but I jumped in and started raising money.”
McNay visited many of the same people she’d already met through her work in admissions, and she discovered that fund-raising was enjoyable.
“I think of it as a game where you move puzzle pieces around and you’re always trying to get the right prospect,” she said, “and then you ask for the right amount at the right time for the right project.”
At one point, McNay was the alumni director and annual fund director, and for two years she was director of development. All of those positions that saw her handling special events and working almost every weekend.
“I lived downtown so I walked to work every day,” she said. “I would have lived at Transy 24 hours a day if they let me.” She said she would still be working at Transy if not for the fact that she and her husband, Gary, moved to Atlanta because of his career as an architect.
TAKING HER SKILLS TO NEW PLACES
In Atlanta, McNay’s sense of adventure and her fund-raising experience led her to positions in development and consulting at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Emory University, and Pace Academy.
“I took what I learned at Transy about raising money to my new positions,” she said. “At Georgia Tech, I visited all of our donors who gave a thousand dollars or more. People would say, ‘No one has ever visited me before,’ and yet that’s what I learned to do at Transylvania—stay in touch with the donors.”
Most recently, McNay was director of development at Pace Academy in Atlanta, where her sons were students.
“It was a job that worked well for my children,” she said. “It was something I knew how to do and it fit with their schedules, but I decided my next job would be for me.”
That job turned out to be her current position at the High Museum of Art, a leading museum that holds more than 11,000 works of art in its permanent collection. McNay began working there in 2006, and found it’s an environment that suits her.
“I fell in love with the High,” she said. “I get to be around the arts, so if I ever have a stressful moment, I just walk through the galleries.”
Her day-to-day experience is unpredictable. “Whatever I think I’m going to do, I end up doing something else,” she said. The something else could be writing proposals or letters, or attending social events or meetings.
“I’ve had to learn how to run a museum. I’ve learned about budgeting and which of our donors care about African art versus African American art,” she said.
McNay had been at the High for only about a month when she flew to Paris to meet with a donor.
The High Museum’s current capital campaign is focused on raising funds for the final phase of the “New High for Atlanta Campaign,” which will provide finishing touches on three buildings designed by Renso Piano that more than doubled the museum’s size to 312,000 square feet. The Piano buildings were designed as part of an overall upgrade of the entire Woodruff Arts Center Complex, of which the High is a part.
“We have a lot of money to raise,” McNay said. “Our goals are huge,” but she’s optimistic. During her first year at the High, development set a record, raising more money than had ever been raised in a year.
One place she finds inspiration is the Advancement Museum Directors Association, a group comprised of chief development officers of major museums, for which McNay recently served as president. This year, the High hosted the association’s annual conference. “People wanted to come see our new buildings,” she said.
In fact, McNay and her husband attended the opening of the Piano buildings in 2005, not knowing she would soon be working there.
“We have been big supporters of the High,” she said, “and have come to the major exhibitions since we’ve lived in Atlanta, about 20 years. My husband works about a block away, and now he comes up and knocks on my window and we have lunch.”
FROM EDUCATION TO ART
McNay holds an MBA in personnel administration from the University of Kentucky and a Ph.D. in philosophy of education from Georgia State University, a degree that she once thought might lead to a career as a college president. “(Transylvania President) Dr. Shearer is a big role model for me,” she said. “I thought I would go the fund-raising route and teach along the way.”
Indeed, with most of her development experience in the realm of educational institutions, McNay found she had to switch gears when she began her work at the High. Whereas a school has its own unique database from which to draw, nonprofit organizations share the same pool of potential donors.
“People usually give money to something they believe in,” she said. “They might give to a health organization, for example, if someone in their family has been ill. In arts, we have to continue to seek people who care about art.”
The High Museum does have 50, 000 members. “They’re similar to Transylvania’s Annual Fund donors,” she said, “and several thousand have been members for 25 years because they love art.”
Working for the High allows McNay to explore her own interest in art, a subject she considered as a major college. When she worked for Transylvania, she was involved in the acquisition of the Clara Peck collection, including Audubon’s Birds of America, 1826-38 and Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, 1845-48, now part of Transylvania’s Special Collections.
McNay and former librarian and University archivist Roemol Henry ’34 traveled to New York City to supervise the packing of the extremely valuable prints.
“After flying back home, I remember sitting out on the library steps waiting for that truck to pull up after midnight one night and then they brought in all these rare books,” she said. “It was great.”
Last summer, McNay worked on a $4 million gift for the High, and a building was named for the donor, who will be recognized as philanthropist of the year in Atlanta because of what she’s done for the museum.
“I’m proud to have worked with her and to have gotten to know her,” McNay said. “Fund-raising is all about relationships—who you know.”
McNay says her spare time is primarily devoted to her sons, Ian, a sophomore at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and Mason, a senior in high school. With an interest in art and theater, Mason works as a student docent at the High.
“I’m also the oldest person on the High Museum softball team,” McNay said, “It keeps me young, and I get to work with younger people I probably wouldn’t get to know very well otherwise.”
“Fund-raiser” is not a term that McNay often uses to describe herself. “Advancement is more accurate,” she said. “We’re advancing the institution,” but even in her personal activities, she often finds herself in the position of raising funds.
“I help raise money for our church,” she said. “When people find out I’m a fund-raiser, they all have their pet projects for me to help with—when I volunteer at the PTA or something, I tend to fall into consultant mode and end up raising money.”