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Bowers to salute man who made fundraising an art

In opening its new wing today, the Santa Ana museum honors Donald Kennedy, who donated $2 million to the effort, gathered millions more.

February 18, 2007|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

When the call came in to his office, Donald P. Kennedy didn't hesitate. A major expansion for the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana had reached the concept stage and it was time to think about paying the bills.

Kennedy knew the routine. After half a century of guiding First American Corp., the nation's second-largest title insurance company, he was an old hand when it came to philanthropy, especially at Bowers where he spent decades on its Board of Governors.

"We know we're competing with many things in Southern California entertainment, like the beach, football, the movies," said Kennedy, "[but] a few years ago, we took the position that if the museum was to succeed, it was going to have to be the best."

In this case, that meant a fundraising team needed to be quickly assembled.

"That takes money for construction, and bringing good exhibits here is expensive. I went to the phone and started calling friends," he said.

Today, the Bowers opens the Dorothy and Donald Kennedy wing, nearly doubling the museum's size and enhancing its cultural reach for international-level displays such as its new "Treasures from Shanghai" exhibit.

The event is Orange County's second large cultural celebration in recent months, following the September opening of the $200-million Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

While the concert hall is just a few miles down Main Street from Bowers, it's an entirely different ZIP Code. Costa Mesa's arts district is in the shadow of South Coast Plaza; Bowers is in the heart of a largely immigrant city.

At a cost of $15 million, the Bowers expansion has nearly been paid off after a fundraising campaign that slowed, perhaps by donor fatigue from both projects, then resuscitated with help from an unlikely source: Asian American bankers and philanthropists in Los Angeles.

The name Donald Kennedy may not be as familiar outside county philanthropic circles as Segerstrom's, but the 88-year-old Kennedy has a long history of giving to charity.

"He's a legend," said Betty R. Moss, executive director of the Orange County Business Committee for the Arts. Moss said that Kennedy and his wife have long supported cultural activities at South Coast Repertory Theater, St. Joseph Ballet and Chapman University, where he is a trustee.

Kennedy became president of First American in 1963. During his tenure, the corporation became a Fortune 500 company and now has 35,000 employees. Though semi-retired, Kennedy still goes to the office daily.

One of Kennedy's business strengths, the art of sealing a deal, came in handy during a luncheon with Dominic Ng, chairman and CEO of East West Bankcorp Inc. in Pasadena.

At the time, fundraising had hit a wall. "You can only call on your friends so many times," said Kennedy, who wrote a check for $2 million and challenged the Bowers board to match it.

At the lunch, Ng heard about the Bowers and the challenges from museum President Peter C. Keller and board member Anne Shih, whose contacts in China had been instrumental in putting together the museum's "Secret World of the Forbidden City: Splendor from China's Imperial Palace" exhibit in 2000.

When Ng was told that the Bowers was planning a permanent gallery that would feature major Chinese exhibitions and history, a bell went off in his head. "I thought that would be a great cultural exchange and kind of being part of history-in-the-making because it's never been done," Ng said.

What resulted was a flurry of phone calls to committed supporters, said Ng, who became the fundraiser's co-chair with Kennedy. East West donated $2 million, including a gift of $1 million from John M. Lee, the bank's vice chairman.

With the added support, the campaign reached its goal within four months, Ng said. In addition, the Bowers added fresh names to its new foyers and galleries after prominent benefactors such as Jim and Angela Hsu, John and Mary Tu, and S.L. and Betty Huang.

Kennedy said he has always known that Orange County would soon come of age and "stand alone" in a cultural sense from its bigger neighbor to the north.

For him, the county seat of Santa Ana is where his family started its title business in 1889, the same year the county split off from Los Angeles County and incorporated.

"I remember my mother really didn't like the Bowers Museum," he said with a grin. The Bowers house and land were given to the city at a time when "it didn't have the slightest clue of what to do with it," he said.

But in the 1960s, the city's cultural board joined with a newly named Bowers board and reached agreement: The city would own the land and building and provide maintenance for the grounds. "We would raise the money for the exhibits and shows," Kennedy said.

Through the years the Bowers has gone through several reincarnations. After hiring Keller, formerly director of programs for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, as its director in 1991, the museum grew.

But its focus on local history had little appeal outside Orange County.

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