Natural History Museum Foundation Purchase of Private House Disclosed : Home’s Use in Fund-Raising Activities Cited in Decision

Times Staff Writer

A private foundation affiliated with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History has paid $875,000 to purchase a 3,900-square-foot Hancock Park house for the use of the museum’s director, Craig Black , financial records show.

Black said that as his residence, the house is being used as a site for fund-raising activities. The L.A. County Museum of Natural History Foundation’s acquisition of the gated, 32-year-old, two-story, four-bedroom, five-bath house makes Black one of two public executives in Los Angeles County for whom residences are provided. The other is Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who lives about six blocks from the museum director’s residence in a house donated to the city in 1975 by the J. Paul Getty Foundation.

Black noted in an interview at his office in Exposition Park that provision of housing is almost unprecedented among natural history museums across the country, but said that the practice is nearer to the norm for top officials of colleges and universities and for many directors of art museums.

“This is the kind of a job that is totally public relations, 24 hours a day,” Black said.


Details of the purchase were contained in museum financial records on public file in Sacramento and supplied to The Times by the natural history foundation of the museum in response to a Times request.

Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, whose district includes the Exposition Park museum complex, called the acquisition of the house a “dangerous practice” for a public employee. However, Board of Supervisors Chairman Deane Dana said the house purchase was apparently justifiable and a matter between the museum and Black.

Black earns $123,200 in annual salary in roughly equal amounts paid from the Los Angeles County treasury and the museum foundation. Black also receives a $2,000 monthly housing allowance--an amount that reflects recent increases in the allowance, he said.

Robert Attiyeh, chairman of the county museum’s board of trustees, said Black has received a housing allowance since he was hired five years ago. Black is “paying, in effect, rent on the house” that is roughly equal to the housing allowance, Attiyeh said.

“Our feeling was, it was in the museum’s strong interest to have Craig reside in a facility we could use for (bringing) a wide cross section of people closer to the museum,” Attiyeh said. “The type of individuals who are really able to help us are individuals who appreciate the personal touch of being in the director’s home.”

Black’s housing allowance is considered taxable income, and Black said that in 1985 the museum foundation loaned him $6,000 to pay an outstanding Internal Revenue Service bill incurred because of tax liabilities on the housing allowance. Museum chief deputy director Mark Rodriguez said the amount was fully repaid.

“It’s not a total freebie; it’s taxable income,” Black said of his use of the Hancock Park house.

At the time the natural history museum foundation’s house was acquired early in May, the museum was positioning itself publicly to resume a major fund-raising campaign with the announced intention of upgrading public exhibition and research support facilities at its Exposition Park headquarters and expanding space through construction of a planned new museum complex in the San Fernando Valley.

Attiyeh said about 10 fund-raising events have been held at the Black residence since it was purchased, but he said it was difficult to put a dollar amount on money contributed as a result. He said many of the social events are part of prolonged series of contacts that may result in substantial contributions in the future.

Attiyeh said the museum foundation saw purchase of the South Muirfield Road house as an investment. The house sits on a half-acre lot on a quiet block of luxury homes and includes a heated swimming pool and a paddle tennis court and is surrounded by a stone wall and iron fence with electronically operated front gate. Attiyeh said Black helped locate the house, but that the board made the final selection and handled financial arrangements.

Hancock Park, north of Wilshire Boulevard, is an area of large homes and estates that has historically been one of Los Angeles’ most desirable neighborhoods. Residences in the district commonly sell for $1 million and more.

Disclosure of the purchase was the second time in two months that a Hancock Park house purchase involving a top official of a county-owned museum has come to public attention.

Last month, the attorney general’s office said it was investigating a low-interest, $972,135 mortgage loan made three years ago to Earl A. Powell III, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The loan was provided by Museum Associates, a private group affiliated with the art museum. Deputy Atty. Gen. James Cordi said Wednesday that the inquiry is ongoing but he would not discuss it.

The natural history museum foundation transaction, which closed in May and was not publicly disclosed at the time, is alluded to on the last page of the 1987 auditor’s report of the foundation. The report was prepared by Arthur Andersen & Co. and is dated Oct. 7.

Andrea Ordin, an assistant attorney general in charge of charitable trust regulation in Los Angeles, said the natural history museum foundation house purchase probably did not violate applicable regulations. Ordin said the transaction would come under review only if evidence surfaced that someone involved with the museum foundation’s board had derived personal financial benefit from the sale.

The residence was purchased, according to the Arthur Andersen report, through sale of $662,300 in securities that were previously part of the museum’s endowment and a $212,700 withdrawal from a revolving line of credit secured by the museum’s capital campaign fund. Attiyeh said the endowment securities were not part of the $4.1 million set aside for construction and other capital development projects but were instead taken from the $3.1 million general endowment with the express permission of the donor who initially gave the stock that was sold.

The home was purchased from Martha Carpenter of Rancho Mirage and Hancock Park. The financial records show that Carpenter made a $75,000 unrestricted gift to the foundation after purchase of the house was made final. Attiyeh said the gift was negotiated during escrow.

Neither Supervisor Hahn nor Supervisor Dana was aware of the home purchase before it occurred. “I do not favor the use of the natural history museum foundation’s money in this way,” Hahn said. “There are plenty of locations to stage fund-raisers for the museum besides a person’s residence. The museum director is paid a good salary and he should be able to pay for his own home, like everyone else in the community.”

Dana took a more tolerant view of the Hancock Park house transaction than Hahn. “It’s really a matter between the foundation and (museum director Black),” Dana said. The chairman said he learned of the natural history museum foundation transaction last month at about the same time the low-interest Powell mortgage loan was disclosed. Dana said such perks are often necessary in museum circles “to get the finest people possible to run the museum.”

Attiyeh said the local museum’s comparatively modest endowment of about $9 million justifies its housing policies, which are significantly more generous than comparable facilities elsewhere.

Attiyeh said the history of Southern California requires an approach to fund raising in which personal social contact with top museum officials at parties at Black’s residence is essential. He said that local museums have generally been far less extensively endowed because the area is comparatively newer and populated by less long-established residents than other large urban areas.

“In encouraging and nurturing the kind of relationship you need for major support--not $5,000 or $10,000, but millions of dollars--the only way you get there is through affluent individuals who appreciate Craig and his staff,” Attiyeh said.

Of the museum’s $14-million annual budget, Black said, about half is supplied by Los Angeles County, with 139 of the museum’s 205 full-time employees on the county payroll. About $3.5 million is generated by grants, Black said, but the remaining approximately $3.5 million must be raised by the foundation, which functions as the museum’s sole fund-raising entity. The foundation’s total endowment of about $9 million generates only about $250,000 a year in income, Attiyeh said, with the result that more than $3 million must be raised through foundation activities, including gift shop revenues and other museum concession income.

Black, 55, has been director of the museum since 1982. He previously headed the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He is married to Elizabeth King, a scientist, and has two children.

Locally, the privately owned Huntington Library in San Marino supplies a residence for its director, and that structure, a spokeswoman said, was originally a guest house on the estate of railroad magnate Henry Huntington and was acquired by the museum when it was established by Huntington in 1919.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, a spokeswoman said, provides housing for one top official, Robert Adams, who carries the title of secretary of the institution and has responsibility for all 14 museums in the Smithsonian complex. The house, in Washington, was purchased in 1984 for $485,000, the spokeswoman said.

Adams pays “several hundred dollars” a month in utility and other maintenance costs, the spokeswoman said. The Smithsonian house is furnished on the first floor with items from the museum’s extensive furniture collection and on the second floor with belongings of the Adams family.

However, spokesmen for natural history museums in Chicago and New York said their organizations believe the immense public interest in such things as dinosaur skeletons and archeological artifacts commonly held by such institutions is so great that even small fund-raising functions are most effective when they are held in museum exhibition facilities themselves as opposed to private residences.

Tom Sanders, vice president for development at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, said that institution holds its fund-raising events on the museum premises. “The best way to raise money,” Sanders said, “is to bring people to your museum. That’s the way we do it.” He said potential contributors can be taken on VIP tours of museum artifacts that are not on public display.

Sanders said the Field Museum’s director “had to find his own home.”

Herb Kurz, spokesman for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said his museum has a policy of holding even small fund-raising parties for groups of 20 to 30 donors on the museum grounds. He said some small fund-raising social functions are held in private residences owned by museum officials or members of the board of directors. Top museum officials reside in homes they purchased themselves in New Jersey and Manhattan, he said.