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Photo by Jason S. Ordaz

Institute of American Indian Arts students during the 2019 Commencement Ceremony on the IAIA Campus.

The Institute of American Indian Arts is meeting several strategic goals sooner than expected thanks to an unrestricted $5 million donation from Mackenzie Scott. The writer and philanthropist made headlines in 2020 when she gave almost $6 billion to hundreds of nonprofit organizations.

It's the largest unrestricted gift from a single donor in IAIA's history, and officials are quickly putting the funds where they are most needed. Just over half -- $2.8 million -- went to the school's endowment, and $1 million will help fund a research center for contemporary Native arts and culture. The rest of the money will support student scholarships, new graduate programs, faculty and staff development, and COVID-19 relief.

"Our students often need help with what might be considered basic needs -- food, housing, technology," says Felipe J. Estudillo Colón (Laguna Pueblo), IAIA's interim academic dean and associate professor of museum studies. "And it can be a challenge to balance their academic lives with what's expected of them at home. This gift gives us the ability to expand our support in ways we couldn't have envisioned a year ago. The Scott gift not only supports our students but, by extension, Native families and communities."

Scott was once married to Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon and the world's second-richest man. In their 2019 divorce settlement, Scott received $38.3 billion worth of Amazon stock, and she pledged to give away half of it.

"This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling. Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires," Scott wrote on Medium.com in December, when she announced the second round of gifts, of which IAIA was a recipient. (The first round was made in July 2020.) "We shared each of our gift decisions with program leaders for the first time over the phone and welcomed them to spend the funding on whatever they believe best serves their efforts. They were told that the entire commitment would be paid upfront and left unrestricted in order to provide them with maximum flexibility."

Colón says a new low-residency master of fine arts program in studio arts launches this summer, and they are now devising new graduate programs in museum studies. Planning for a research center began in 2019 with a $434,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Scott gift will finance building construction. The sheer variety of plans they can immediately put into motion is what makes the gift most exciting.

"Commonly, when an organization or individual wants to make a gift, they want to put their money toward an area that they have a particular focus or interest in," Colón says. "We're always open to those types of donations, but a lot of things can be missed in that kind of giving. This gift really allows us to use our own expertise and our own history to fulfill students' needs."

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