Milestones, 1999 Annual Report
Thirty-five years have passed since the World Monuments Fund was founded by a retired U.S. Army officer, Colonel James Gray, who wanted to help prevent the collapse ofthe Leaning Tower of Pisa. More than 160 projects later, WMF's program has grown in scope, complexity, and sophistication. Its mission, embracing the conservation of architecture, sites, and works of art in situ throughout the world, has not changed much since 1965. But today the New York-based organization, with affiliates in France, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom and funding partners throughout the world, takes a radically different approach to its task. According to WMF's chairman, art historian Marilyn Perry, "our method is to identify problems, activate concern, and facilitate solutions."
While the classic preservation initiative is local, an endangered site usually possesses a small constituency that fights to save it. "We want to make the point on a local level that people across the world care whether a building is preserved or lost," says Bonnie Burnham, WMF's president. And Perry offers the complementary argument: "We want more people to understand that something saved in a country they may never visit is part ofour worldwide cultural heritage and should matter to them."
Over its history, WMF has come to the rescue of man-made places and objects that have suffered from natural disasters, pollution, unsound urban and rural development, inappropriate reuse, and incorrect restoration technologies. Gradual decline over time, commonplace human ignorance, indifference and neglect are equally damaging. For its first two decades, WMF would focus on individual endangered buildings and pair each with a donor, who would stay with the project and fund it until preservation or restoration was complete. When Gray retired, Perry and other trustees knew that to launch an international movement, they had to encourage people to recognize that grave cultural losses were happening that were not merely local, but of national or international importance. "We set out to grow from a nice charity that Cares about old buildings to an organization like the Red Cross that can go wherever necessary to help with emergencies or avert them," explains Perry.
At inception, the nonprofit was focused almost exclusively on Western Europe. When Burnham was recruited in 1985, she remembers, "the organization had a great record and a loyal constituency. But the scope of our work was very limited geographically and projects were selected somewhat arbitrarily. Yet, the potential was enormous because there was really no other international private organization in the field."