Although the foundation was established in 1988, president Sebastian says it really got off the ground a couple years later; 1990 is also the year he and business partner Jerry Moss sold A&M Records to Polygram for a reported $460 million. In 1962 they had founded A&M to produce albums for the Tijuana Brass; the company also successfully took on a slate of other talents including the Carpenters, Cheech and Chong, Joan Baez and Janet Jackson. When they sold the business, A&M was the largest independently owned record label in the world.
Sebastian oversees a small, tightly-knit staff. Their grants fall into two main categories — arts and arts education, and compassion and well-being. In the last four years under her watch, they've given away $10 million to $20 million a year. That's included grants to institutions such as UCLA to organize its music program under the Herb Alpert School of Music and to the California State Summer School for the Arts to help run their summer program at CalArts.
Every year five individual artists and performers are selected for the Alpert Award in the Arts, which comes with a $75,000 grant. According to the program's 2009 brochure, the award is given to "experimenters who are challenging and transforming art, their respective disciplines, and society." Last year that included video artist Paul Chan, composer-musician John King and choreographer Reggie Wilson.
"We're a proactive foundation," Sebastian says. "Some foundations have guidelines and wait for people to apply. We go out and seek projects we think need to be funded."
One major Los Angeles arts institution, P.S. Arts, grew out of a chance meeting between Alpert and Paul Cummins, then headmaster of Crossroads School in Santa Monica. They were at a potluck dinner for parents and commiserated over the stripping away of arts education from public schools. "Herb was appalled and said, 'Is there something we can do about it?'" recalls Cummins, who already had ideas for a model program.
The Alpert Foundation pitched in with a grant for $600,000 over three years. That launched P.S. Arts at Broadway Elementary in Venice, the first of 22 schools where they would establish a weekly arts curriculum. That number includes seven schools in the Lawndale elementary school district and eight in LAUSD. Later came more aid totaling $3.1 million, and the Foundation will soon be announcing a grant to help them go the next step: to establish an endowment.
"He's one of the more extraordinary men I've ever met," says Cummins, now running his own foundation. "Not only his generosity, but his willingness to take risks, and to look at a problem and say, Let's fix it.'"
The CalArts Community Arts Partnership has been another recipient of Alpert's generosity. The program sends CalArts students, led by teachers and alumni, into 60 neighborhoods across L.A. County to teach the visual and performing arts. "I believe it was in 1992 that Alpert visited our jazz and world music program at the Watts Tower," says Glenna Avila, CAP's director. "We were training young high school students, and his initial scholarships helped students come to CalArts." Avila praises the foundation for being responsive to their needs. "They are now involved in program support, and they gave us a huge challenge grant in 2008 — they offered $1 million to help build our endowment."
"I just have to say," she adds, "what better way of leaving a legacy than assisting young artists in pursuit of their artistic dreams?"
Alpert himself is modest about his philanthropy — in this instance anyway, he lets others toot his horn. "I want to give back — I've been awfully blessed," he says quietly. "I had the opportunity to spread my good fortune and I wanted to do that in a very conscious way."