Philanthropist Eli Broad has donated $250,000 to the downtown arts high school, officially signaling his influential approval for a high-profile, high-cost campus that has struggled to win civic support since opening in 2009.
The gift is a significant windfall for one school, but more important than the amount was the signal that it sends to the arts and philanthropy establishment, which has never fully embraced the $232-million Cortines High School of Visual & Performing Arts.
A primary reason for this distance was the example set by Broad himself, who withheld financial support over concerns about the school's management by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The funding source of the Friday donation was the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership, which was given to Broad and his wife Edythe to donate to the recipient of their choice.
School supporters see a hopeful omen for a sleek, steel-clad modernist landmark that has frequently seemed star-crossed.
One principal quit even before the flagship campus opened its doors. The school started with two leaders, and both were gone by the end of the first year. The next principal lasted a year. Two principals from arts high schools elsewhere accepted the job twice — and backed out twice. At one point, the school had trouble securing its accreditation.
Last year's principal, Norm Isaacs, quit over Catch 22s that affected funding and enrollment: School board member Monica Garcia, who represents that area, mandated that the school should serve mainly students in the surrounding neighborhoods. But they didn't come in large numbers — especially after cuts to arts programs in the early grades deprived students of cultural exposure that could have stimulated their interest.
Isaacs backfilled with students from other parts of town, and to many parents and students the school has been unfairly cast as struggling. Even so, donors followed Broad's lead in keeping away from a program that failed to seek out the most talented students from across the school system. And funding from the school district became tenuous as well for a facility that costs more to maintain and staff.
But Broad said the hiring of the latest principal, Kim Bruno, warrants renewed civic involvement.
Bruno, 58, formerly headed the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City for 11 years. In years past, she had tentatively accepted the job and then changed her mind at least twice —before the most recent recruitment effort succeeded.
Broad credited L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy with making a winning case to Bruno. The school has "had a rocky history," Broad said. But "it's a great building, and now it's got a great principal."
Bruno sidestepped the controversy over who should attend the school and whether some or all students should have to audition. Currently, arts experience or talent plays no role in admissions.
Instead, she said, she will focus on making sure there is adequate arts instruction both for beginners and advanced students. And she wants to set up Saturday arts classes across the city for younger students — so they are better prepared and more interested in attending her school.
In New York City, Bruno was known for overseeing a program that attracted substantial outside dollars. Since her first day of work on Aug. 11, she has met with numerous donors and arts organizations.
"Mr. Broad has been generous with his time and advised me about folks I might want to reach out to," she said.
She hopes to set up an advisory board to develop curriculum and funding partnerships.
"It costs a great deal to run a school that has a pre-college program and a pre-conservatory arts program," she said. "My concern is for people to take out their checkbooks and support this school."