L.A. Philharmonic gets $20-million donation from GeoCities founder

L.A. Philharmonic gets $20-million donation from GeoCities founder
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Philharmonic in Rachmaninoff's "Isle of the Dead" at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

A prominent Los Angeles tech entrepreneur and former board president of the L.A. Philharmonic announced Wednesday that he will give $20 million to the orchestra, half of it going to endow the top leadership position now held by Deborah Borda.

David Bohnett's pledge was made in recognition of Borda's successful tenure at the Phil. It will create the David C. Bohnett Presidential Chair and be used to underwrite at least part of the compensation of the orchestra's current and future president and chief executives.


Borda called the gift "an unexpected honor. We've been partners in running this organization for many years. It so clearly honors and reflects the institutional DNA of the Phil."

Orchestra leaders said that the other $10 million would launch the David C. Bohnett Presidential Fund for Discovery and Innovation.

The fund is intended to aid the orchestra in new audience development, including the exploration of new digital platforms and applications.

Bohnett, a Chicago native who has spent most of his adult life in L.A., founded the GeoCities website and sold it to Yahoo. He is also a technology investor who has been involved with a number of start-ups through his private-equity firm Baroda Ventures.

Bohnett said that he has had a long interest in finding ways to leverage technology to broaden the reach of classical music.

"What if you go to a concert, and you're so excited that you want to listen to it on the way home? There's a possibility for immediate access to this music," he said.

Bohnett added that he is "particularly interested in broadening access and outreach to underserved communities."

His $20-million pledge to the orchestra ranks second in size only to the $25-million donation from the Walt and Lillian Disney Foundation for the Phil's endowment, which was made a little more than a decade ago.

The Disney donation was spearheaded by their daughter, Diane Disney Miller.

Other sizable donations in the orchestra's history include $10-million donations each from the Colburn Foundation and Alfred E. Mann; and $8 million from the Annenberg Foundation.

Endowing musician seats has long been common practice at major orchestras, while endowing executive positions is less common, according to Joseph Kluger of the arts consulting group WolfBrown.

"I think it's a wise allocation of resources because you not only need wonderful musicians, but you need really experienced and intelligent executives managing these complex organizations," Kluger said.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is another major orchestra that has endowed its top officers.

Endowed executive positions are somewhat more common in the museum world, according to Michael Kaiser, former president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and now director of the University of Maryland's DeVos Institute of Arts Management.

That's because museum directors are not just managers but are often also highly credentialed scholars who have final say over their institution's exhibitions and acquisitions, and in hiring and promoting curators.

The head of the L.A. County Museum of Art, Michael Govan, carries the title of chief executive and Wallis Annenberg director.

Borda joined the L.A. Philharmonic nearly 15 years ago and drew $1.8 million in salary, retirement fund payments and benefits in 2012, according to the orchestra's tax documents.

Under her tenure, the Phil's net assets have grown significantly, from just $7.3 million in 2000 to $186 million in 2013. The orchestra's endowment accounted for $177.6 million of those assets. Today the endowment is $222 million.

The Phil drew $6 million from the endowment in the 2012-13 season, helping to offset about 5% of its $110.3 million in operating expenses.

The Phil endows its music director position, held by Gustavo Dudamel, and creative chair for jazz, held by Herbie Hancock. It also endows 18 musician positions within the orchestra.

Audited financial statements show that the orchestra has seen its endowed chairs rising to $15 million in 2012 from $5 million in 2011. A spokeswoman for the Phil said it would like to see all of the orchestra's musician seats endowed.

In 2003, Bohnett purchased tickets for the gala concerts and celebrations when Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, hosting several guests at top patron levels. Borda said that she didn't know Bohnett at the time but was intrigued.

"I said to myself that this is a guy I want to know," she recalled. Bohnett spent five years as the orchestra's board chair, working closely with her.

The gift comes at a time when arts philanthropy in the U.S. has seen an uptick in giving after lean years following the recession, according to Eileen Heisman, chief executive of the National Philanthropic Trust.

"During the recession, people were giving less to the arts and shifting toward basic human service needs," Heisman said. "This past year, there was a rebound in giving to the arts, and I saw that as a sign of economic recovery."

The most recent report on American philanthropy by the Giving USA Foundation found that donations to arts, culture and humanities organizations hit $16.66 billion in 2013, breaking the record of an inflation-adjusted $15.39 billion in the pre-recession year of 2007.