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L.A. arts' worth eludes magazine

Only Cornerstone theater is on a list of nonprofits lauded by a publication that targets the big-donor class.

January 06, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

East is East and West is more or less San Francisco in Worth magazine's list of what it bills as the nation's best nonprofit arts organizations.

Los Angeles isn't entirely off the map, thanks to the Cornerstone Theater Company's inclusion on the list of 24 arts entities that Worth, a Manhattan-based monthly geared toward the very wealthy, anointed in its December issue as representing "the best of our country's culture" -- and therefore worth special consideration for philanthropic giving.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Opera, the Center Theatre Group and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- four big L.A. organizations that rely heavily on the largess of Worth's target readership -- did not get mentioned. But, in a boost to Bay Area bragging rights, the San Francisco Ballet, the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Symphony all made it.

The Santa Fe Opera was the only other honoree west of Chicago on a list heavily weighted toward the Boston-to-Washington corridor, including seven organizations based in New York City.

So did Worth's conclusions reflect an East Coast-centric view of the arts world -- and a dismissive attitude toward the Southern California arts scene?

"God, no," says W. Randall Jones, founder and editor in chief of the magazine, which sells about 500,000 copies a month. "We try not to have a New York bias. There are just more arts organizations that happen to be headquartered on the East Coast, particularly New York. And a lot of great organizations didn't make the list simply because of our own [space] constraints." The arts listing is part of a larger honor roll of philanthropies that the magazine calls the Worth 100. Also included are environmental groups, health charities and others.

Senior writer Reshma Memon Yaqub said that in compiling the list she asked about 400 experts on classical music, museums, dance and theater to recommend candidates. To make the project manageable, she said, she focused on just four regions -- New York, the Washington, D.C., area, Illinois and California -- but included groups elsewhere if they were frequently cited by experts. The main criteria, which Yaqub acknowledges are subjective, were that candidates be "impactful" in their programming and efficient in their fiscal management -- although no hard-and-fast numerical formula was applied to rank groups on the basis of their spending and fund-raising. The Worth article did indicate the share of each organization's annual income that went to programming, fund-raising, administration and future reserves. It noted that industry watchdogs recommend that at least 50% of a nonprofit's revenues should be spent on programming or, alternately, that programming should account for at least 65% of all expenditures.

Three L.A. organizations besides Cornerstone Theater got close consideration, Yaqub said. One of them, the J. Paul Getty Museum, was disqualified because it is part of a foundation that basically bankrolls its own operations; she would not identify the others except to say that one was a musical group and the other a museum.

Being overlooked by Worth is not insulting or stigmatizing, said Elizabeth Kennedy, Los Angeles Opera's director of administration. But she thinks the magazine's choices reflect a lingering tendency in the arts world to overlook the West Coast and, when considering California, to place San Francisco's more venerable institutions ahead of relatively younger ones in L.A.

"The arts community in Los Angeles is way too vibrant to be overlooked," Kennedy said. "I think it's a matter of having not been thought about rather than having been thought about and dismissed." She doubts that potential opera backers in the West will divert donations to San Francisco or Santa Fe and away from Los Angeles simply because L.A. Opera didn't make Worth's list. "When it comes to opera, they give out of a very passion-driven sensibility. I don't know that people would make a choice based on whether you appeared in this article. I think if you appeared in a list of the hundred worst charities you'd have something to worry about."

Leaders of other large Los Angeles arts organizations could not be reached for comment.

The much smaller Cornerstone, whose annual budget has reached the $1-million mark only in the last two years, clearly has registered with national and regional arts observers, said Yaqub, the Worth magazine writer. "So many people mentioned Cornerstone and said that this is a group changing the way theater is done."

Cornerstone creates plays by immersing itself in the life of various communities in Southern California; the stories and concerns of people in those communities inform the scripts, and everyday folks who aren't professional actors often are cast in the shows.

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