The Delicate Dance

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Both men owned sports cars and loved the arts, and one fateful day, Mark Chapin Johnson met Richard G. Engle at the lube bay.

"We were having our Ferarris serviced," Johnson recalled. He and Engle struck up a conversation, then a friendship. In the process, Johnson joined Engle on the board of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in 1992, later becoming its chairman and one of the center's biggest benefactors, ever.

It may sound casual--especially when you're talking more than $1 million, a rough total of what Johnson has given--but the way it all began for him, friend to friend, is one of the half-dozen proven methods arts organizations have for getting prospective donors to part with sums small and large.

And with the recent news that a much-desired expansion of the center will cost upward of $200 million--double initial estimates--Johnson and other board members, including incoming chairman Roger T. Kirwan, will have to step up that friendly wooing of potential donors if they are indeed to build a 2,000-seat concert hall and a 500-seat multipurpose theater.

Johnson, who hands the chairman's torch to Kirwan on Thursday, will be overseeing the capital campaign, now in its initial phase, as they try to raise a quarter of the projected costs before kicking off a public fund-raising effort. There's talk, too, of adding a 300-seat theater to South Coast Repertory on vacant land across from the Costa Mesa center. That means a separate SCR capital campaign, not to mention ongoing fund-raising efforts for continuing operations of the arts facilities.

So how do the movers and shakers in the arts community woo others and persuade them to open their wallets? For one thing, they give themselves, and, by example, encourage others to join ranks. A center board member is expected to give or raise about $50,000 annually.

Besides the personal, one-on-one approach, other proven methods are to give potential donors:

* Contact with renowned artists;

* Exclusive glass-clinking occasions and other VIP perks;

* A sense of civic responsibility;

* A sense of the organization's inner workings to make them feel like family;

* A taste of the magic moment before the curtain ascends or their artistic passion.

Spotting, courting and keeping arts donors happy involves glittering accouterments, unlike hunger fund-raisers and meals-on-wheels work. Those arenas rarely afford the opportunity to don designer fashions or to sup with millionaires whose names grace performance halls and museum galleries.

"We have lots of dinners at the [Los Angeles] Music Center," said billionaire financier and Los Angeles arts patron Eli Broad, who, until recently, headed fund-raising efforts for Los Angeles' $260-million Walt Disney Hall expansion.

At those intimate affairs, Broad said, "You identify people that, one, can be supportive financially, and, two, have an interest in the institution--a great combination--and you sort of nurture that."

Orange County arts officials insist that most of their donors aren't in it for the filet mignon on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes accompanied by asparagus tips with truffle sauce.

In fact, last year's most prominent donors, Henry T. Nicholas II and his wife, Stacey, weren't even season subscribers when they made their unsolicited $1.3-million donation for SCR's new theater. They had been to several SCR plays and were bowled over by the quality of the productions.

"We just called and said, 'We'd like to make a donation to you guys," recalled Nicholas, the billionaire co-founder of Irvine-based Broadcom Corp., and an avid theatergoer. "Of course, now we get really good seats."

The moment the Nicholas gift was made, however, other arts groups and charities, the Performing Arts Center included, went a-wooing.

"Everybody in town is pursuing Henry Nicholas as a donor," center president Jerry Mandel said.

But many incentives are pomp-free.

First choice of season tickets or free seats to a curator's talk excite some patrons more than artifact acquisition trips up the Niger (a Bowers Museum of Cultural Art perk) or dinner at the private Pacific Club in Newport Beach (courtesy of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County).

From Phone Bills to Choreography

Still, every nonprofit arts institution, even the volunteer-run Newport Beach Recital Series, must go "prospecting" and perfect the art of "the ask."

"After every concert, our benefactors are invited to come and visit with the artists at receptions held in private homes," said series director Nan Morisseau.

All nonprofit arts groups solicit contributions from private corporations, foundations and individuals to span the gap between expenses and revenues from box office, shop sales or admission fees.

But locally as nationally, the percent of total donations received from individuals, which experts say has been rising at least since the mid-'90s, varies widely, as do the amounts people give. From $25 to $1 million, they subsidize everything from telephone bills to play commissions to new choreography.

All volunteer trustees are expected to spot and woo new donors, but the size of each group's paid fund-raising staffs varies too.

The center, Orange County's largest arts organization, depends on donations for about a quarter of its $29-million annual budget and individuals contribute about 80% of those funds, officials said. Eighteen of its 80 staffers work in development.

Terry Jones, the center's development chief, won't reveal his department's budget. But he and others love to talk about how to woo and dine, and how it all starts.

One local art patron joked that identifying a new donor entails pricing his or her shoes. Others say the process may start simply by scanning season-subscriber or museum membership lists. Such arts-goers already have shown deeper interest than drop-in guests.

Jones gets referrals from board members and devours business news sections daily to identify executives on the rise and add names to his Rolodex.

Sometimes he just hears helpful hints through the grapevine. Not long ago, a couple that has given thousands to the center remarked to one of his staff what a thrill it must be to appear on stage like the famous performers at Segerstrom Hall.

Before the pair could say proscenium, they were sitting in front of the footlights eating lunch with center president Mandel.

"You could count on one hand the number of donors who have had that opportunity," Jones said.

A dozen hand-picked dance lovers recently broke bread with living legend Alicia Alonzo, the Cuban former prima ballerina, and her interpreter.

"We would love to find a person or people who would [help create] a major endowment for dance" at the center, said Jones, adding that nobody as much as whispered "give" during the exclusive event. Such a request would come later, although always in person, he said.

The worst way to go after someone's cash is cold--say, by sending a letter, added Broad, the former Disney Hall fund-raising chairman. "It's also bad if the person asking hasn't given. When I or [Los Angeles Mayor] Dick Riordan ask people for [funds for] Disney Hall, which was dead in the water, the first thing we say is that we've each given $5 million."

Backstage Perspective

The ways in which donors get involved in cultural philanthropy vary greatly, but friends often introduce friends to the practice. Five years ago, a buddy and sitting trustee of the Laguna Art Museum got David Emmes II (son of South Coast Repertory co-founder David Emmes) to join the board and pay its $5,000 annual dues. It took four months, five phone calls and one ocean-view lunch.

But more than persistence, pride of place persuaded Emmes, a resident of the art colony, to get involved.

"The most interesting aspect of it," said Emmes, now an Orange County Museum of Art trustee, "was the idea of sort of indirectly supporting where I live and a lot of what Laguna is all about."

Knowing all about an organization also is key to cultivation.

Attendees traipsed through rooms crammed with sets and props at South Coast Repertory's Santa Ana storage facility during a recent get-to-know-us reception.

The gathering united SCR's Silver, Golden and Platinum Circle members, supporters who donate from $500 to $10,000 each annually, and the nonmember guests they hope to enroll.

Wearing suits or big diamonds, the recruits grazed on olive tapenade and portabellos, then sat in a huge studio to watch SCR scenic artist Mary Heilman hand paint a giant backdrop, trees against a blue sky, for SCR's "Arcadia." Pony-tailed production supervisor John Lagerquist passed out detailed sketches for the play's sets.

The idea: show these select few the organization's inner workings and make 'em feel like kin.

"Hi, how are you," gushed Golden Circle chair Teri Kennady, welcoming Linda Blevins, a Santa Ana homemaker and community volunteer. "It's good to see you. You're still wearing your coat! Have you seen 'Arcadia' before?"

"I loved it," Blevins said later. She hadn't joined the ranks of SCR's supporters yet, but she would like to. The backstage look, she said, "gave me a whole different perspective on the play. And I just couldn't believe how warm people were."

Understanding what motivates people to act--and delivering it--is critical to transforming an arts lover into an arts funder, said the center's Jones.

"It really gets to the heart of the matter," he said. "You cannot create a love, or a need, or a desire on the part of the donor. You have to find it."

The former UC Irvine fundraiser does that by attending three Center performances a week and schmoozing at intermission. Then, he enters data like "Mrs. Smith's father was a concert pianist and we need to find out if she shares his love of music" in a computerized file.

At UCI, he helped get Marjorie A. and the late Richard H. Barclay to agree--after nearly a year of team cultivation--to give a $1-million "naming" gift to subsidize construction of the Irvine Barclay Theatre. And he remembers the precise turning point.

Jones knew Richard Barclay wanted to leave a lasting legacy, loved music and played piano. Then, through a tete-a-tete, he discovered that "the stage kind of fascinated him."

Construction of the on-campus auditorium, which Jones could see from his office, had just begun.

"So I called Mr. Barclay up and said, 'How'd you like to put on a hard hat, walk through, and imagine what it will be like?' " Jones recalled. "He did, and that's what it took."

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Editor's note: Zan Dubin was a Times arts and entertainment writer through June 1999.

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