Feeling the Pinch : Cultural Institutions Are Reeling From a Fall in Corporate Philanthropy

A healthy ferment still characterizes the cultural life of Southern California, despite four years of severe economic downturn that only lately shows signs of ending. A new center for the performing arts has just opened in Thousand Oaks. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts is drawing crowds, as are the South Coast Repertory and Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa and the new arts center in Escondido, in northern San Diego County.

Some are still making ambitious plans. The Latino Museum for History Art and Culture, almost five years in the planning stage, will announce building-site selection in a few months--probably at First and Main streets in Downtown Los Angeles. The Korean American Museum of Art and Cultural Center has begun a four-year development to put a museum at Olympic and Normandie avenues in the heart of Koreatown. The Japanese American Cultural Center is thriving Downtown. And plans are being made for a Chinese American center.

But strain is evident among Los Angeles' major cultural institutions, such as the Music Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, because the economic downturn has forever altered philanthropic giving. Fund-raising has grown more difficult also at Orange County's Performing Arts Center and Repertory Theater.

Big corporate donors in defense, banking and energy have either cut back or disappeared. "There used to be several major banks, Security Pacific . . . " says one expert without needing to finish the sentence.

Thus, when the proposed Disney Hall, which received a $90-million gift from Walt Disney's widow, runs short and needs more money, the Disney company doesn't step forward to help out. "And neither does (Disney Chairman) Michael Eisner," remarks a local fund-raiser.

In an uncertain economy, individual donors limit themselves to one-year pledges, says Shelton Stanfill, president of the Music Center, which has a $10-million annual budget to help offset operating expenses for the Philharmonic, Master Chorale, Theater Center, Chamber Orchestra Opera and other resident performance organizations.

Attendance is strong at all the attractions but box office brings in only a fraction of the expense of fielding a major orchestra or putting on a theater production for a limited run.

The squeeze is important to the business community, and anybody interested in Southern California's future, because cultural attractions are a factor in local economies. They help create jobs by attracting and holding companies and skilled employees. "They bring business to restaurants and shops and they bring people together," says Esther Wachtell, head of Wachtell Group, a fund-raising organization.

Therefore, figuring out how to increase business support for culture is important, and especially urgent for the Los Angeles area because it lags behind smaller, business-minded cities, such as Minneapolis and Seattle, in philanthropy. "Seattle gives lots of support to theaters and a full symphony orchestra," says Judy Davidson, partner in a Los Angeles public relations firm.

Truth is, the cultural attractions' plight reflects both Southern California's challenge and its promise. Big organizations are struggling and need to restructure, while the strength is in decentralized, entrepreneurial firms. There are lessons for all.

Money is available: Business donors from the San Fernando Valley to Ventura, led by software entrepreneur Charles E. Probst, came up with $64 million to build the Thousand Oaks Center.

But the money may not be easy to reach. "It takes more effort and money to identify and appeal to owners of small- and medium-sized companies," says the Music Center's Stanfill. Yet entrepreneurs need to back the Music Center because only it can support a symphony orchestra and other major attractions in the region.

So what's the outlook? Stern but hopeful.

"The '80s are over for art institutions just as for business and government," says Eli Broad, chairman of SunAmerica Inc. and a major contributor to arts and educational institutions. "Cultural institutions have to do more with less. But when they demonstrate they can do that, we donors will open our purse strings even further than before."

The possibilities are greater than the difficulties, says real estate developer Robert Maguire, who is chairman of the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA). Maguire has visions of an 8.5-acre sculpture garden at LACMA and expansion into the old May Co. building nearby.

Noting that LACMA, the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits next door and the Petersen automotive museum across the street, attract 2 million visitors a year, Maguire reckons the museum complex could become a center for educating the public in digital media technology, a local growth industry. "Money can be raised if the focus is there," Maguire says.

Successful organizations are already reaching out: The Los Angeles Master Chorale earlier this month hosted the Seoul Ladies Singers from South Korea in a successful concert. The Chorale featured Latin American music at its Christmas concert last year.

The Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena currently is exhibiting artists from nine different nations.

Business also must reach out and innovate because, as one executive put it, recession is too mild a word for what the local economy has been through. Economic restructuring is more accurate. And it's only as restructuring is completed that the survivors among cultural institutions and businesses will be determined.

The only certainty is that an area as vibrant as this one will support many. Christopher Lee and Stephen Yum, two Korea-born Americans who studied at Cal Poly Pomona and UC Berkeley, respectively, are trying to organize the Korean American Museum. "Its purpose will be to educate other Americans and first generation Korean Americans about Korean culture," says Lee.

Similarly, the Latino Museum will be in Downtown Los Angeles because it wants to educate all Southern Californians and Latinos, too, about the culture of Latin America. The local economy may still be convalescing, but its spirit is renewed and vigorous.

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Declining Generosity

Corporate giving to charity peaked in the late 1980s. Corporate donations, in billions of inflation-adjusted dollars:

1963: $3.06

1993: $5.92

Source: American Assn. of Fundraising Counsel, National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies

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