Philanthropist Pledges $6.6 Million to O.C. Arts


In what officials hailed as the largest pledge of its kind in Orange County history, an unassuming philanthropist from Laguna Beach stunned the local arts community Thursday by promising more than $6.6 million to five prominent cultural organizations.

William J. Gillespie, who is grandson and heir to a founding investor in Farmers Insurance Group, was said to be acting out of concern that the county bankruptcy and political efforts to cut back the National Endowment for the Arts would deprive the Orange County arts organizations of money they need to flourish.

Gillespie, 52, chose not to attend a gathering at the Orange County Performing Arts Center where ecstatic arts leaders announced the pledges. Gillespie’s spokesman and stand-in, Richard A. Gadbois III, who described the philanthropist as “a very private person,” said that by next week the following checks would be issued:


* $2.8 million to the Center.

* $1 million to the Pacific Chorale.

* $940,000 to the South Coast Repertory theater.

* $680,000 to the Orange County Philharmonic Society, which presents touring classical music ensembles at the Center and other halls.

* $1.2 million to the Pacific Symphony.

Gadbois said the orchestra also would receive an unspecified amount from a previous Gillespie pledge of $2 million to fund the orchestra’s music director’s chair.

“Bill Gillespie’s most generous gift to the arts in Orange County, and in particular to the Center, will have an immeasurable impact on the future of arts in our community,” Center President Tom Tomlinson said in a prepared statement. “This significant gift is key to ensuring long-term financial stability, not only for the Center but for all performing arts organizations.”

Gillespie, a bachelor who loves to chat with arts officials after programs, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to local arts groups over the past decade, Gadbois said. But the gifts promised Thursday would be the largest one-time donations ever received by the institutions, except for the Center, which was given $13.2 million in land and construction funds by the family of developer Henry T. Segerstrom.

Gillespie’s would be the biggest non-capital donation in the Center’s history, however. The gift to the Pacific Chorale would actually exceed the organization’s annual budget, by $200,000.

The organizations will be free to use the money any way they wish, Gadbois said.

Nationally, contributions of $10 million to a single institution are “not uncommon,” according to a spokeswoman for the Foundation Center in New York. But the Gillespie gifts stack up well regionally. The Pacific Chorale’s gift would be twice the size of the biggest-ever donation to the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Although some of the groups’ fund raising has exceeded goals in recent years, the pledges nevertheless come at a time when the groups are feeling the pinch of diminishing private and governmental support.

“We’re thrilled,” said Jay St. Clair, board chairman of the Pacific Chorale, who anticipated using the money to establish an endowment. Neither he nor Gadbois could explain why the Chorale was promised such a large gift in proportion to the others, but St. Clair said Gillespie has been a loyal member of the group’s audience, a contributor since 1987 and “very involved” with programming. He said it was Gillespie who suggested that the Chorale perform the “Carmina Burana” oratorio with a dance troupe earlier this month.

At least two local groups--Opera Pacific and the Master Chorale of Orange County, the only other groups that regularly appear at the Performing Arts Center--were somewhat conspicuously absent from the pledge list. But Gadbois noted that Gillespie has contributed to those groups in the past and that any group “can expect future gifts.”

The money would come from interest from a $17-million trust that Gillespie’s mother, Edra E. Brophy, established in 1988 to benefit UC Irvine’s College of Medicine and four of the recipient arts groups, and from interest from Gillespie’s personal foundation and other investments, Gadbois said.

The trust money earmarked for the arts, $8.5 million, was supposed to be disbursed in 2008, but Gillespie “accelerated” the terms of the trust so the groups could get the cash now, Gadbois explained. He added that Gillespie may in the near future accelerate some of UC Irvine’s $8.5-million trust disbursement.

Gillespie is concerned about the nationwide “demise of funding” for the arts, Gadbois said, citing numerous recent congressional recommendations to eradicate or reduce the National Endowment for the Arts, the recent recession and the county’s bankruptcy woes.

“The idea,” Gadbois said, “is to immediately guarantee the future success of the organizations,” which could use the monies for current operations or endowment funds and to “attract other potential donors. . . . There are no strings attached to this. This is cash coming in for immediate utilization.”

No one urged Gillespie to make the donations now, St. Clair and other recipients said.

“This wasn’t a survival appeal,” said St. Clair. “I think Bill wanted to see some of the fruit of his giving, in addition to seeing it 20 years down the road. I think he really wants [the county] to become a world-class arts community.”

Except for the Pacific Chorale, the recipients have not yet determined whether they will use the funds for operations or endowments. Most are leaning toward the latter to ensure long-term financial stability but may keep some of the money for operations to help cope with any shortfalls.

Brophy, Gillespie’s mother, who died this spring, was the daughter of William Cheney, a founding investor in Farmers Insurance Group, which was acquired in 1988 by a London-based company in a $5.2-billion buyout.

Arts and the Man

Philanthropist William J. Gillespie has given the local arts community $6.6 million to be divided among five groups, the largest donation of its kind in Orange County history. A portrait of the man behind the money:

* 52-year-old grandson and heir of William Cheney, a bean farmer who invested in fledgling Farmers Insurance Group * President of William J. Gillespie Foundation * Lives modestly in Laguna Beach * Publicity-shy, took no part in announcement of gift Who Gets What

Here’s how the new grants compare to the recipients’ annual operating budgets:

1995-96 Grant budget Orange County Performing Arts Center $2.8 million $22 million* Pacific Symphony $1.2 million $6 million Pacific Chorale $1.0 million $800,000 South Coast Repertory $940,000 $6.1 million Orange County Philharmonic Society $680,000 $2.3 million

* 1995 budget only

Source: William J. Gillespie Foundation

Researched by ZAN DUBIN and STEVE EMMONS / Los Angeles Times