AWM Executive Director Nike Whitcomb
describes the process of paying for the Michigan Avenue Institution
Nike Whitcomb, Executive Director of the American Writers Museum, has created a thrilling level of anticipation for the country’s first and only national monument to the written word, which is scheduled to open next year in Chicago. Now, all she has to do is find the money to build it.
“We raised about $2.4 million last year,” she says. “We need $10 million altogether.”
When completed, the museum will occupy the entire second floor of 180 N. Michigan Ave., joining Millennium Park and the Cultural Center along the city’s prestigious Cultural Mile. It’s 8,500-square-foot space will include a Readers Hall, a Writers Hall, dedicated exhibits for local as well as national authors, and a room-sized digital “Word Waterfall” where, according to the downloadable interior plans, “Magic Happens” as “Words float down and assemble in interesting ways.”
It will also benefit from massive pedestrian traffic along Michigan Ave. “We are looking at 45,000 hotel rooms within about a half mile,” says Whitcomb. “150,000 people walk by that site every day.”
Whitcomb is uniquely qualified to get the job done. Before accepting the position last January, she had operated her own fundraising company, Nike B. Whitcomb & Associates, for 36 years. During that time, she generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the likes of the Evanston Art Center, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the National Public Housing Museum. In one decade alone, she raised more than $125 million for Millikin University, her alma mater.
Since embracing her new role, she has successfully shaken some of the tallest philanthropic trees in the country. To date, she has procured an antique writer’s desk from an individual donor and funding for the Readers Hall, which will accommodate 75 people, from a family foundation.
Whitcomb’s fundraising technique combines thorough research with flexible presentation. After learning as much as possible about potential donors through online search, news sources and personal networks, she attends meetings with full confidence but also understands that none of her preparations might matter.
“It is like improv,” she says. “You cannot predict what’s going to happen.”
During one recent meeting, a gentleman asked if she had talked to a certain “so and so.” Upon learning that she had not, he launched a conversation that yielded 15 more potential donors in 15 minutes.
“You don’t want to pitch and not listen,” she explains.
She is also reviewing artifacts, developing the first 100 authors to be honored by the museum, and keeping a lookout for literary fans of all ages.
“I was at a party and a little boy was making paper airplanes with his brother. I asked him, ‘what do you like to do when you’re not making paper airplanes?’ He said, ‘I like to read.’ So I asked, ‘who’s your favorite author?’ He said, ‘Oh man, I have more than one.’”
— Daniel Patton | Staff Writer