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The Delicate Dance

Fund-Raising Takes Finesse, Persistence and a Nurturing of Arts Benefactors' Desire to Give to Society


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.

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