The next time you're at a $750-a-plate fund-raiser for the opera, check Plácido Domingo's shadow. In it, you're likely to find a solid citizen named Marc Stern.
You've probably never heard of Stern, but when a million-dollar gift falls through or a soprano comes down with a sore throat or the artistic director has a brainstorm, Stern, the chairman of the opera's board of directors, gets a call. The same sort of thing happens with Walter Weisman at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and John Hotchkis at the L.A. Philharmonic.
FOR THE RECORD
Board membership — An article in Sunday's Calendar incorrectly identified one of the boards on which Los Angeles Times Publisher John P. Puerner sits. He is a member of the board of the Music Center of Los Angeles County, not of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
They and arts patrons like them — the volunteers whose dollars, clout and judgment have won them board seats at the city's largest arts institutions — are the people who shape the cultural character of Los Angeles.
Their numbers include hard-charging entrepreneurs, top executives, retired moguls, heiresses and the occasional full-blown celebrity, and they operate in a chandelier-lighted, by-invitation-only realm full of fiduciary responsibility and social opportunity. In this largely white and mostly over-50 world, lunches with Frank Gehry and cocktails with David Hockney are entirely possible and getting tickets is never a problem. But it's likely to cost a five-figure donation, maybe six, every year, just to get a foot in the door. And the price of admission is rising fast.
At the opera, board members have tripled their giving over the last five years and now average $100,000 per year each. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where trustees in 1991-92 averaged less than $4,000 per year per person in unrestricted gifts, the figure is now $60,000. At the Skirball Cultural Center, which didn't exist seven years ago, board members last year gave, on average, $250,000 apiece.
As the gifts grow, the members of the board are asking more questions, debating more issues and exerting more influence. And still, most of the rest of us can't name five of these people, let alone what they do.
"Take a guy like me," says Marc Stern, sitting in a glass-walled office 18 stories above Figueroa Street downtown. "I'm relatively new to Los Angeles. I'm not a social person. I have a day job. And I think that's healthy." By day, Stern heads the TCW Group Inc., an investment company that manages $80 billion in assets. By night — and many mornings and afternoons as well — he heads the Los Angeles Opera's board of directors. Stern, raised in New Jersey, formed an attachment to opera as a boy, listening to Saturday-afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts as he sat on his father's lap, riding a tractor across the family farm. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1990 as a high-powered businessman, and within two years, he'd been recruited to join the opera board. "They found me pretty quickly," says Stern. And he has found challenges on all sides. Over the last year, he has had to turn from his stock-market monitor to fill in following the October death of opera pioneer Leonard Green (who had been board chairman) and to authorize a scramble to replace scenery delayed by dockworker strikes."It's a crazy job, when you think about it," says Stern. "You volunteer, and what do you get for it? You get to give away money."
A board's personality
If you add up the active members who sit on the boards of the Getty, the Music Center, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Opera, Center Theatre Group, LACMA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Skirball Cultural Center and the Autry National Center for the American West — the nine largest arts institutions in the city, by budget — you find more than 400 names.
Sometimes they're called trustees, sometimes directors, sometimes governors. But the basic rules of nonprofit board membership are almost invariably the same: Pitch in money, choose the institution's top executive and often an artistic director as well, keep an eye on its finances, and draw upon your experience and wisdom to push the enterprise toward its mission.
"Noses in, fingers out," says Barry Munitz, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, quoting an old board-world slogan.
But every board is unique. Or, to use the phrase favored by Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, they're like marriages.
"Nobody really knows what goes on inside," she says. "What every board does, and what the relations are between board and staff, can vary incredibly."
The Philharmonic's board sits amid the fading mid-'60s extravagance (red carpet, crystal chandeliers, gold-leaf ceiling) of the Music Center Salvatori Room. The Museum of Contemporary Art's trustees gather across the street in a narrow, barrel-vaulted post-modern chamber that's often rented by film crews and feels like the inside of a big bullet. The Skirball keeps its board membership at 18, because in Jewish culture, the number symbolizes life. While most groups wring their hands over their inability to recruit more than a handful of entertainment industry types, the Center Theatre Group's board roster includes Anne Douglas (wife of Kirk), film producer Walter Mirisch and television writers Allan Burns and Brian Hargrove.
Some top board names dohave a familiar ring. Peter O'Malley got plenty of attention as owner of the Dodgers before he joined the Philharmonic board (and sold the team). Charlton Heston has an emeritus seat on the board of Center Theatre Group. Steve Martin is the reigning movie star on LACMA's board.
But many of the most influential board members — perennials on the executive committees, often cropping up on multiple boards — are business leaders or come from well-fixed families with lower public profiles. Philharmonic chairman Hotchkis is an investment manager and fourth-generation Angeleno who also sits on the LACMA and Music Center boards. His wife, Joan, is on the L.A. Opera board. Los Angeles Times Publisher John P. Puerner sits on the LACMA and Philharmonic boards. Wallis Annenberg, daughter of the late TV Guide founder, ambassador and art collector Walter Annenberg, sits on the LACMA and Music Center boards. Fred C. Sands, whose Beverly Hills real estate company is among the nation's largest, sits on the MOCA and opera boards.
At the highest levels, "everybody goes after the same 10 people," says Claire Peeps, executive director of the Santa Monica-based Durfee Foundation and a veteran of the Southern California arts scene.
"You want to be their No. 1 or No. 2 charity," says Center Theatre Group development director Yvonne Bell. "You can tell if you're their No. 5 charity: They're not opening their Rolodexes."
With major-league patrons in such short supply and their time at such a premium, "we spend a lot of time cultivating our donors," says Richard Kagan, president of the CTG board of directors. "We're very serious about what it takes to be a member of our board."
Indeed, "when someone new and choice comes into town, there can be this feeding frenzy," says one former CTG insider, requesting anonymity. As a prime example, this insider cites bank executive Les Biller (then the chief operating officer of Wells Fargo) and his wife, Sheri, who arrived here in late 1999 from Minneapolis with a history of philanthropy there.
"I was in meetings where it was said, 'We've got to get Sheri Biller before somebody else does,' " says the former insider. "She was head-hunted, almost. She was courted, wined and dined, and she was landed, by the CTG."
Meanwhile, Sheri Biller — who serves as vice president on CTG's 2002-03 board — was doing some homework of her own.
"When I knew that I was coming to L.A., I asked my contacts at the Ordway [Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minn.] for recommendations," she says. Told that CTG is "the only theater group of its type in L.A.," Biller says she studied the organization further, met with a couple of board members, "and made my decision based on where I thought I could make the most significant impact." Her husband joined the Autry's board.
Arts community veterans agree that board members these days are drawn from a broader range of professions and backgrounds than in years past — a "more democratic" mix, in the phrase of LACMA board member Eli Broad. Men outnumber women about three to two. There's no handy way to measure where fortunes came from, but board members and executives agree that this city's boards include more earned wealth and less inherited wealth than is found among the East Coast's leading cultural groups.
The way that money is earned has evolved too. As business consolidations and relocations have reordered the business scene in Southern California, the number of corporate executives in high-profile philanthropic roles has shrunk.
There remains, however, a wide cultural gap between the major arts-boards members and the city's population, which the 2000 census estimated at 46% Latino, 11% African American and 10% Asian.
The lone Latino surname on the CTG board is that of Corina Villaraigosa (wife of City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa), who joined last year. (The CTG board also includes two African American members and one Asian member.) MOCA's board includes one Latino (City Council President Alex Padilla, who joined within the last 18 months as a nonvoting member) along with one Asian and no African Americans. Among three-dozen LACMA trustees, two carry Latino surnames. (Officials at that museum say they can't supply further diversity information because they don't ask trustees about their heritage.)
Even the opera, led by Domingo (born in Spain) and heavily bankrolled in recent years by New York-based patron and board member Alberto W. Vilar (born in Cuba), includes just one other Latino surname among its 60 board members. (That director, Alicia Garcia Clark, 14 years ago founded the support-and-outreach group Hispanics for Los Angeles Opera, which now includes 2,800 members.) The rest of the opera board includes one Asian American and no African Americans, a spokesman said.
"It's embarrassing" to search for ethnic diversity among the city's major boards, says veteran LACMA board member, attorney and nonprofit management consultant Daniel Belin. "It's outrageous. It's sad. It's a real weakness." The problem, he suggests, is a failure to make outreach a long-term priority.
Other insiders note that recruitment depends heavily on existing board members, many of whom "don't know where to go" to find nonwhite candidates. But even when a candidate is sighted, further challenges may await.
The Philharmonic recently advanced several steps in courting one Asian American board candidate, development director Emily Laskin recalls, and then discovered he already sat on 14 other boards — too many to give the Philharmonic the time it needed.
Walter L. "Wally" Weisman, 68, is former chief executive of American Medical International Inc., which owned more than 100 hospitals before it was bought out in 1990. He's also chairman of the LACMA board, and chairman of the Sundance Institute's board. And as board member at Caltech, he's the chairman of that university's ongoing campaign to raise $1.4 billion for capital projects."The amount of time that I'm putting in is simply staggering," he says. "But I did it to myself. And I do believe in these institutions, and that makes it a lot easier."Last October, Weisman put on his Caltech hat to announce that the school had raised more than $800 million in a yearlong "quiet phase" of fund-raising.Yet through those same months that the university's donors were saying yes, another set of donors was saying no, or not saying yes forcefully enough, to LACMA.Since late 2001, museum leaders had been looking for six to eight major donors (in the $25-million-plus league) to back a $300-million to $400-million plan for a new museum complex by star architect Rem Koolhaas. In December, board member and Koolhaas-booster Eli Broad, Weisman and museum director Andrea L. Rich told the museum's board it was time to face facts: The pledges were not materializing. At their urging, the board dropped the project. "That is tough stuff," said Weisman.
Take a seat, write a check
If you're on a major arts board, you'll probably be asked up front to give or solicit $10,000 or more per year. (Among the scores of local arts groups with annual budgets under $1 million, $1,000 or less per year often suffices.)
You will also be counted upon to give time and expertise at meetings. At opening nights and exhibition previews, you'll be expected.
Another thing: When endowment and capital campaigns come around — multiyear enterprises that are run separately from day-to-day operations and may aim for targets of $200 million or $300 million — you'll be expected to pony up more money. Fall short, or miss too many meetings, or rub too many colleagues the wrong way, and you may not be reelected by your peers.
"Once upon a time, everyone got reelected," recalls Weisman, thinking of LACMA 15 years ago. "I'd say now, 10% to 15% don't get reelected."
Board meetings come monthly or quarterly, often with committee meetings in between covering topics from budget to facilities. At such gatherings, which are typically closed to all but board members and top staffers, the Philharmonic's leaders approved ticket-price boosts for the upcoming move into Walt Disney Concert Hall; Getty board members OKd the museum's $50-million offer to buy a Raphael now owned by Britain's Duke of Northumberland. But perhaps the most crucial decisions board members make are whom to hire and fire — and on that front, the city's arts boards lately have had a mixed record.
MOCA's director Jeremy Strick, the Autry's executive director John Gray and the opera's Domingo are all examples of recent hires that have stuck. But several others haven't.
In 1998, for instance, the Philharmonic brought in Willem Wijnbergen as managing director to succeed longtime leader Ernest Fleischmann. Within 16 months Wijnbergen was gone amid controversy over "conflicts" that have never been detailed.
At the opera, in early 2000, the board hired Ian White-Thomson as executive director to handle the organization's administrative end while Domingo worked the creative side. Nineteen months later, White-Thomson resigned, complaining that Domingo was too often out of town.
At CTG, meanwhile, board members now face perhaps the most delicate task of the company's 36-year life: finding a successor to Gordon Davidson, the retiring artistic director/producer who has nurtured new works at the Mark Taper Forum since its birth and presented more mainstream shows and road productions at the Ahmanson Theatre for more than a decade.
That task likely will depend heavily on networking — always a big part of a board member's job. The Skirball's president, Uri Herscher, notes that his trustees "call and say, 'Uri, have you met the new president at the Huntington [Library in San Marino]. I think we should have lunch.' Or: 'Jane Pisano has moved from USC to the Natural History Museum. Have you met Jane?' "
Often, the schmoozing takes place amid ice sculptures and martinis of many colors. Galas thrown by the Music Center and Philharmonic are known for a more traditional crowd. Domingo is credited with boosting the opera's social cachet and energy in recent years. MOCA is known for drawing a hipper, wilder crowd. (Last May's Warhol party attracted Dennis Hopper and Charlize Theron, among others, and featured bartenders in white Warhol wigs.) But at each major institution, big money rides on every fête. The three- and four-figure cost of the tickets is yet another expected donation from board members and friends.
In March 2001, when the L.A. Opera threw a "Domingo and Friends" evening at the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with Ricky Martin as guest performer and dinner served outside in tents, the bills added up to $817,040. The revenue from the event's 3,200 guests: about $1.9 million.
"If we did it inexpensively, we'd make no money, because everybody would hate it," says Elizabeth Kennedy, the opera's director of administration. "There is a social life of the organization that's critical, when you're asking of people to give of their time and resources we ask of our board members. You want them to have a pretty good time."
With visions of even larger numbers dancing in their heads, the Philharmonic's leaders have scheduled not one but three galas to celebrate the opening of Disney Hall. If all goes according to the plan of chairwoman Ginny Mancini — widow of Henry and a member of the Philharmonic and Music Center boards — those galas (to benefit the orchestra's education programs) will pull about 2,000 guests each at performance-and-party prices of $500 to $5,000 per person.
In December, Mancini confessed that she was already carrying around swatches of the concert hall's Gehry-designed upholstery (which includes orange, red and pale green), so that she can choose a gown that harmonizes. By mid-April, seven months ahead of the events, 60% of gala tickets had been sold, and only about 400 seats remained for the first night. Already, as Mancini sees it, the opening is shaping up as "the biggest thing to ever hit L.A.'s social scene."
Bob Tuttle is co-owner of about a dozen car dealerships in Orange County and Arizona. He served as a mid-level official in the Reagan White House for most of the 1980s. In the early 1990s, after he'd returned to the West Coast, he was approached by his friend Aviva Covitz, a MOCA board member. "She knew I was interested in contemporary art and the museum," recalls Tuttle, whose collection includes work by German artist Gerhard Richter. "She said, 'Here's what I want you to do. I want you to give X dollars over the next three years, and this is what it'll entitle you to.' "He gave. He showed up for meetings and openings, and now and again offered his judgments. By late 2001, he was chairing the MOCA board, and facing a decisive moment. If the board members could quickly dig into their pockets for $2 million in extra contributions, Strick told them, they could bring the latest Andy Warhol retrospective, a potential blockbuster, to MOCA. With Tuttle leading the charge, the show came, the cash registers rang and the museum membership roster grew. But in the meantime, the economy fell further, other revenues began to look shakier, and the same board soon found itself hunkered down with Strick, trimming the museum's 2002-03 budget from $16.6 million to $13.5 million.
Wanting more influence
Twenty years ago, the Museum of Contemporary Art was just moving from a temporary home in Little Tokyo to a swanky new site on Grand Avenue. The Los Angeles Opera, Skirball Cultural Center and Autry Museum didn't exist. And the city's unchallenged cultural doyenne was Dorothy Buffum Chandler, wife of one L.A. Times publisher (Norman Chandler, who ran the paper from 1944 to 1960) and mother of another (Otis Chandler, 1960-1980).
Through the late 1950s and early '60s, Chandler twisted the arms of the wealthy from one end of the city to the other, defying longstanding divisions between old-money WASPs in Pasadena and entertainment-industry Jews on the Westside. In the end, she raised the $19 million needed to build the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum on the plaza known as the Music Center. In the 1980s, she was still summoning wealthy strangers to private lunches, where she would assess their worthiness as potential cultural heavyweights.
"Look up the old boards," urges LACMA's Rich. "They were either the CEOs of big local corporations or the wives of them. Now, as the years go on and things change, it gets more and more difficult to figure out who the civic leaders are."
In the old days, says LACMA's Belin, board meetings weren't as entertaining as they are now.
"People were not as questioning about why the organization is doing what it's doing," he recalls. But now, he adds, "there's an increasing demand for reasons why this organization deserves my support A lot of organizations are going to stumble because they don't recognize this new reality."
In short, Belin and other say, this generation of Los Angeles board members is more inclined to challenge institutional tradition and, perhaps because more of theirs is on the table, more worried about money. (Chandler's $19-million fund-raising drive, worth about $110 million in inflation-adjusted contemporary dollars, wouldn't pay for half of Disney Hall, or one-tenth of the Getty Center.)
"We've had some great set-tos, on everything from what a fund-raising campaign should be to what something should be called," says Rich.
Dyann Sublett, vice president for advancement at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, notes that "board management" can take half of a nonprofit chief executive's time these days, potentially yielding vital insights. As for the risk of a too-active trustee leading an institution astray, the key is being "willing and able to walk away."
As LACMA's Rich notes, leaders also need to recognize that "the more directly they contribute to the resources of the institution, the more they dictate the direction of the institution."
Knowing the extent of such influence is nearly impossible for an outsider, however. At MOCA, for instance, the museum recently offered an exhibition on the car designs of J Mays, who is vice president of design for Ford Motor Co. Board chairman Tuttle, whose automotive empire is built in large part on the sales of Fords, says he took care to keep a distance from the show, which was assembled by curator Brooke Hodge, and would have recused himself from a board vote on that programming decision. But like most such decisions, Tuttle and Strick note, it was made by the director and curators, not the board.
At any arts institution aiming to balance its mission with the bulging checkbooks and considerable egos of donors, however, things can go wrong. And in other U.S. cities, a few such things have gone spectacularly wrong lately.
Cleveland philanthropist Peter B. Lewis, enraged by cost overruns on a construction project at Case Western Reserve University, last year withdrew support from every charity in town until the Case Western's governing board resigned or a similar revolutionary change took place. (He's still waiting.) In 2001, Virginia businesswoman Catherine B. Reynolds scandalized historians and curators when she offered the Smithsonian Institution $38 million, provided that the money be spent on a salute to 15 high-achieving Americans, most of whom she would select. (The Smithsonian backed away when the controversy erupted, and Reynolds eventually withdrew her offer.)
In Los Angeles, veteran philanthropy insiders whisper about the intimidating presence of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. He is widely credited, along with former mayor Richard Riordan, for twisting enough corporate arms to wring out tens of millions in gifts to the $272-million Disney Hall capital campaign in the late '90s. But it was a dispute with Broad over design and building plans that led Frank Gehry to walk off the Disney Hall job in 1997. Others wooed him back.
As a board member at LACMA, Broad pushed hard for the Koolhaas project in 2001, and won approval when none of his board colleagues spoke out against it. He says he would have pitched in $50 million to make it happen if only a few other big donors had joined him. None did. Some blame the board, some blame Broad and some blame the economy.
"An Eli Broad could never join our board," says one top arts executive, requesting anonymity.
But Broad hardly stands alone.
For many of the city's cultural leaders, the scariest arts-patron horror story in recent memory dates to 1988. That's when industrialist Armand Hammer, determined to maintain control over how his $250-million art collection would be displayed, tried to strong-arm LACMA into a detailed set of conditions. When that didn't work, Hammer (now dead) reneged on the long-planned donation and instead founded his own museum next to his company's office in Westwood.
Now affiliated with UCLA, the museum endures — as does the challenge of dealing with patrons used to managing their own assets for their own ends. "That's the trend: Viewing philanthropy as an investment," says James Ferris, director of USC's Center for Philanthropy and Public Policy.
Indeed, says the Getty's Munitz, arts organizations are seeing fewer traditional patrons like Robert Erburu (former top executive of Times Mirror and chairman emeritus of the Getty board) and Robert O. Anderson (former chairman of Arco and a life trustee of LACMA). A new atmosphere has arrived with such new-world patrons as Ron Burkle (founder and managing partner of the investment firm the Yucaipa Companies; he sits on the LACMA board and joined the Getty board in 2001) and Haim Saban (founder of children's programming giant Saban Entertainment; he joined the University of California Board of Regents in 2002).
"These high-worth entrepreneurs are wonderful because they're so impatient with structure," says the Getty's Munitz. But that same impatience, he notes, changes things.
"These people," he says, "won't come to monthly meetings If we want the Broads and the Burkles and the Sabans and the [Michael] Eisners to be the heart and soul of governing nonprofit Los Angeles, we can't ask them to change," says Munitz. Instead, he says, the question is "how can we adjust our mechanism to earn their participation and support? I think it's a profound change for this city."
He's not the only one looking for a new way to harness these thinkers and their dollars. At the Los Angeles Philharmonic in late 2001, a governance committee led by chairman Hotchkis and board member Roger Zino created a new Philharmonic board of overseers, with just three meetings a year, each of them heavy on perks (lunch with Gehry, for instance).
The idea, says development director Laskin, is to coax and cultivate new prospects for the organization's main board, including "all those entrepreneurs who can't keep their ideas in their heads" — but keep their watchdog responsibilities light, at least at first. In fact, the overseers do virtually no overseeing. So far, 98 overseers have joined up and committed to contributions of $10,000 yearly.
But before that generation of prospective directors and trustees steps up to the next level, there are plenty of thorny challenges to be faced by today's big boards. Besides replacing Davidson at CTG and opening Disney Hall, there are buildings to be rehabbed or replaced at Natural History and LACMA. At the Skirball, there's a newly created museum director position to be filled.
And as that work goes forward, the cost of being a board member "has got to keep going up. It's got to," says the Philharmonic's Hotchkis. "You've got to cover costs somehow."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times