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Jazz at Lincoln Center toots its horn for funds

The performing arts complex's newest member woos donors amid a tough climate for philanthropy.

February 02, 2007|Patrick Cole | Bloomberg News

NEW YORK — Jazz at Lincoln Center faces a major challenge as it turns 20 this year: how to lure deep-pocketed donors who don't embrace an art rooted in the blues and folk music of African American slaves.

Major Wall Street firms aren't among the center's key funders. Only a handful of large companies, including Cadillac, Samsung Electronics America and Bank of America Corp., have become sponsors in the two years since the onetime concert series was transformed into the world's largest performance space for jazz.

Today, Jazz at Lincoln Center is inviting high-ranking financial services executives to join its board and putting its famous artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, to use as a pitchman.

One issue holding back the organization is its youth. Jazz at Lincoln Center, founded in 1987, raised $12.6 million in its 2005-06 fiscal year. By comparison, the Museum of Modern Art, which has built ties to the city's wealthiest corporations and donors over its 78-year history, raised $239.2 million in 2005 with the help of a $100-million gift from philanthropist David Rockefeller Sr.

"It's hard to attract donors to a new institution," said Melissa Berman, chief executive of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, which helps donors and foundations decide where to donate. "They are also in an environment in which a lot of performing arts organizations are facing declining audiences and donor support."

Katherine Brown, executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, said one foundation she approached told her that jazz wasn't among its causes. "You have to be prepared sometimes to hear that our organization doesn't match up with the desires of the donor," director of development Bret Silver said.

The music's origins haven't helped. Jazz, born in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, hasn't had a philanthropic base, jazz historians say. Bars and basements served as the music's home instead of chandelier-adorned concert halls frequented by wealthy patrons.

"The educational process of creating philanthropy for jazz is new," said Beverly Sills, managing director of the Metropolitan Opera and former chairwoman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

The establishment of a regular jazz series at Lincoln Center in 1987 was a breakthrough because it expanded the center's membership from opera, ballet, theater and classical music. Sills, who helped raise the $1 million the jazz center needed to become a part of Lincoln Center, said jazz "deserved its rightful place" alongside other New York cultural institutions.

"Lincoln Center was made up of art forms from Europe, and it was the first time an African American art form became a member of the club," said Rob Gibson, Jazz at Lincoln Center's first director, from 1991 to 2000, who now runs the Savannah Music Festival in Georgia.

Today, contributions cover about 44% of Jazz at Lincoln Center's $31-million operating budget, with the rest coming from ticket sales and about $11 million from renting out its three venues on nights when there is no Jazz at Lincoln Center programming, Chief Financial Officer Freda Gimpel said.

This year, Jazz at Lincoln Center plans to host a series of dinners for corporate executives to meet board members and see a show.

"You really don't approach people cold. It's all done through relationships," development director Silver said. Jazz at Lincoln Center also counts on Marsalis to charm potential donors. He was the key pitchman for the effort to raise money for the original construction. At the center's gala last November, the tuxedo-clad Marsalis spent most of his time working the crowd, going table to table to thank donors and corporate sponsors.

Marsalis, a Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter and composer, uses his music to woo donors. A performance and speech by the New Orleans native persuaded Samsung Electronics America executive Paul Kim to sign up as a sponsor.

"He totally changed my whole perspective toward jazz," said Kim, Samsung's senior manager of corporate planning. "He's extremely dynamic and extremely passionate."

Marsalis, 45, said Jazz at Lincoln Center needs a chance to build a donor base. "There are a lot of people out there with money and influence. It's just a matter of time before they start to understand the value of what we do."

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