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Philanthropist David Bohnett on the Creative Economy of Southern California

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Disney Hall from City Hall | Photo: Carolyn Campbell.
Disney Hall from City Hall. | Photo: Carolyn Campbell.

In partnership with Arts for LA Arts for LA helps communities throughout Los Angeles County advocate for greater investment in the arts.

As the Creative Capital of the United States, L.A.'s greatest export is culture. The creative economy is the 4th largest employment cluster (of 66) and accounts for 1 in 8 jobs in the County. Despite the depth and breadth of our creative industries, we cannot forget the importance of strengthening Los Angeles' creative core through strategic planning, workforce development, and direct investment by the public and private sectors. With such an impressive market edge, why are so many communities losing jobs? Who has access to the creative economy and who doesn't? Arts for L.A. believes cities that don't invest in arts and culture are doomed to fail.

This past August, the Los Angeles Urban League released the white paper, "A Tale of 3 Cities," that reveals a core problem in Los Angeles County: the middle class is declining through the stagnation of income levels and dwindling job opportunities. This affects the quality of life for nearly three million residents -- one-third of our region's total population. This is not someone else's problem; in Los Angeles County, our 88 cities are both independent and interconnected. Like it or not, this is everyone's problem.

I'm not an economist, but when I compare these two ideas -- Los Angeles as the Creative Capital and the shrinking of the middle class -- I ask myself how creativity can help save L.A.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with activist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur David Bohnett about the things that matter most to him. I wanted to identify the connection between arts and culture, gun violence prevention, leadership training and development, marriage equality, and transportation initiatives in Los Angeles, some of the issues in which Bohnett invests through his private foundation. I wanted to learn from this serial entrepreneur and discover his recipes for success and community impact.

I was struck by his humble confidence as well as his sincere commitment to investing in people to become creative, visionary leaders on multiple fronts. Bohnett's philosophy about the importance of having skin in the game as a way to create a stronger society is multilayered and begins with family. Gustavo Dudamel's mantra "Music is a fundamental human right" has become his own philosophy. Bohnett believes building a strong community foundation is an essential component to codifying that belief.

David Bohnett in a marching band.
David Bohnett in a marching band.

We know from a wealth of existing research that kids who experience the arts grow up to become adults who engage with the arts. For some kids, school is the only opportunity they have to experience that kind of mentored creativity, which we also know is critical to fostering innovative, visionary thinkers. Were the arts part of your upbringing? What was a significant arts experience you had growing up?

David Bohnett: Studies have shown that exposure to music in the home is a major contributor to people attending live performing arts events as adult, no matter who in the family played an instrument. My sister played the piano and I was self-taught. Music was a big part of our house.

I was fortunate to have a fulfilling public school education in Chicago. All through grammar school, middle school, and high school, I had a well-rounded education that included the visual and performing arts as well as art history. I played alto and bass clarinets in marching band and in orchestra in high school. We did a lot of competitions, which I wasn't crazy about, but they helped improve my technique and performance abilities. Being exposed to those high school competitions showed me how limited my own abilities were and how other people, through dedication and practice, were so good.

That lesson, the power of persistence, is an important one to keep in mind, especially for those working to improve their communities from the inside out. Real, sustained change takes time, investment, and perseverance. You're an outspoken advocate on the need for people to be engaged in their communities at every stage of their lives and their careers. Where did your quest for public service come from?

DB: My parents and grandparents were very active in their respective communities. In Chicago there were always community centered activities that our family engaged in, whether it was church, the local chamber of commerce, men's groups, child welfare agencies, and so on. It was always modeled for me and instilled in me to give back to my community. I came to Los Angeles for college and then joined a fraternity. Fraternities are, first and foremost, service organizations. That's their primary purpose and at that time in my life I was dedicated to being in service to the community as I was taught growing up.

A lot of people come to Los Angeles to "make it," whatever that means for them, but many people find themselves drawn into the city itself -- the varied neighborhoods, the multicultural communities, and opportunities to help make other people's lives better. On top of that, the weather is great. In many ways, it's an organic town; there's an environment ripe with creativity. What is it about Los Angeles that's kept you not only living here, but investing your money here?

DB: When you use the term "organic town," it's an important positioning consistent with my own beliefs. L.A. is a magnet for creativity. L.A. is a state of mind as much as anything else. There aren't the same barriers as there are in other areas with established social structures and institutions. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: if it is a state of mind, you begin to start acting out of that mindset. I think I am representative of the reason so many people to come here. We are able to make our own way.

One of your ongoing commitments to serving Los Angeles is through your work as a board member for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, which has always had a sustained focus on serving the community in Los Angeles in a measured and meaningful way. During your time on the board, the Phil brought in new Music Director Gustavo Dudamel and also established Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA). Now, YOLA has been in existence for six years, serving over 1,000 students and families by providing access to instruments, instruction, and mentorship in orchestral music. Can you talk about the impact YOLA has had on the lives of these participating families?

DB: Well, it's a sense of relevance, a sense of fulfillment, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of community, and a sense of purpose. I can talk about all those words. It comes down to Gustavo [Dudamel]'s philosophy that music is a fundamental human right. YOLA is a community-building tool for a civil society. These are the words he uses. We try to fulfill that aspiration through our programs at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Gustavo talks about the fact that kids are not only learning how to play an instrument, more importantly they are learning how to get along with each other and how to become citizens within a community. They are learning how to teach other kids and know that how they're playing, their actions, affect other people.

The program is modeled after what we've learned in Venezuela's El Sistema -- that the success of the program is dependent upon family support and family interaction. The families sign a contract with us that says that they will monitor their child's practice, that they will take care of the instrument, and that they will actively participate in the program. The parents have skin in the game as much as the children. We have the mechanisms and the processes to help the parents stay involved.

Right now in Los Angeles County, we're finding arts education to be an effective barometer of whether or not students have access to a complete education. When arts education is absent, we see additional factors complicating student success -- things like access to nutritious food, support for English language acquisition, and low graduation rates. Many of these barriers to success are tied to the effects of poverty, which, for instance, affects nearly 80 percent of L.A.U.S.D.'s students. From your perspective, what political levers need to be pulled so that every child, regardless of their socioeconomic status, has access to the same educational resources, like public education or programs like YOLA, that develop the whole child?

DB: Rather than spending money on a particular program for music education, it would be wise to invest in facilitating other people's support.

There are a lot of people who want to make a difference in their community, but they don't know how. That really surprises me that people don't know how to get involved. One of the things we've tried to do at the L.A. Phil is create a variety of ways people can get involved. We have opportunities through the Hollywood Bowl, through the Music Center, through Disney Hall, and through YOLA, and through the orchestra itself. From a policy and political standpoint, if we created mechanisms for people to support each other through the political process or through their community groups, it's an easier pathway for people to get involved.

The answer isn't allocating more money. That's an easy thing to say. It's about finding ways of tapping into the interest among people in the community. Because of my interest in technology, I'm really big on empowering people to connect to the Internet to have a sense of participation. I see so many businesses that are crowd-sourced. They are all about user generated content and they take advantage of the energy of people wanting to participate. Social media sites are all about people talking about their interests and their passions. All of that energy is there to support the arts and music education in particular. It's about making it easier for people to do that.

David Bohnett in high school.
David Bohnett in high school.

People sometimes think applying more money to a problem will result in better results, but really, I think you're right -- it's an issue of the idea of investment more broadly. Artists, we know, are more deeply invested in the communities around them than people who don't engage in the arts. In fact, in L.A., 96 percent of arts advocates are engaged voters. There's an intrinsic connection between civic engagement -- being actively involved in the city's development and change -- and an individual's level of investment in community organizations. Why do you suppose that is?

DB: If someone votes, they're already predisposed to be engaged in the community. I think the question may be, how do we get more people to vote and/or how do we get more people to volunteer? Working backwards, it's a little bit related to the last answer. The Hollywood Bowl has a wide diversity of programming that engages people who love music. But most people--and I'm using a broad generalization--probably have no idea that the Bowl is a Los Angeles County facility and that they consider helping support the public officials that allocate the public funding that make programming possible.

That's a great point. Does the audience know if they are sitting in a nonprofit theater or a for profit theater? I don't think so. And that's an important distinction when it comes to understanding how our elected officials can help develop more opportunities to bring the arts into underserved communities. For that reason, Arts for L.A. asks what role do/can civic and arts organizations play in voter registration, promoting the value of being an engaged citizen? How can we be a part of the larger civic dialogue?

DB: How do we raise awareness during events to make the connection more explicit? That's very difficult because people are there to enjoy the music and not for political advocacy. At the same time, we have to raise the visibility to let people know we are grateful for the support of the County and the elected officials who serve our community.

Walt Disney Concert Hall is one of the iconic jewels of not only Los Angeles, but of the world. The gorgeous Frank Gehry-designed home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrated its ten-year anniversary earlier this fall. Why is this milestone significant for Los Angeles as a region? Why is it important to have world-class arts and culture facilities and opportunities in a city like Los Angeles?

DB: Every opportunity for people to gather and share their common interest is valuable, whether they're going to a performance at Disney Hall or Dodger Stadium for a baseball game. These places are part of the mosaic of what makes our community cohesive. You go to that Dodger Game or the Philharmonic to feel connected. You are proud that this is your team, your orchestra, or your dance company. It gives us meaning and a sense of place. It's as important for me to have the Dodgers, even though I don't go, as it important for a Dodger fan to have Walt Disney Concert Hall. They're interconnected.

The move from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion into Disney Concert Hall was not just about a physical move, it was a complete rethinking of the L.A. Phil's business model. With the move, we were given a directive by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to offer even more performances in the new space. This caused us to rethink the entire ethos and community mission of the organization. That was the catalyst for reimagining the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In addition to YOLA, the L.A. Phil renewed its commitment to contemporary classical work, for which we are now known internationally. Our programming has just taken off!

One of the things that has been very frustrating for me has been a lack of progress in the digital and new media area. There's has been a lack of experimentation not for lack of intent or capability, but like many businesses in the music industry, we have been hamstrung by traditional thinking and union contracts and outdated business models. For example, you go to a concert downtown to hear Mahler 9 and then later you want to hear it again. Although we have the technology to do that, we aren't allowed because of the limitations of recording and distributing music. The whole way we consume and re-consume and share our experiences in the next ten years will change.

Innovation and relevance are crucial. If you play it safe, you are going to die. There has to be a lot of experimentation and a willingness to fail. The people in this field traditionally come from more conservative, risk-averse temperaments. We need people who are willing to fail and willing to innovate. It has to be community specific and organization specific.

In order to innovate, you have to be bold and dance on the edge of your authority. On the other hand, you need to innovate and still make sure you can pay salaries. For smaller organizations worrying about keeping the lights on, these fears can be persistent, affecting every day decision-making. It can be very challenging for the leaders of these organizations to take risks when the people relying on them -- staff, artists, audiences--need them to stick around for another season. Can you talk about the importance of leadership in circumstances like these?

DB: One of my goals as Board Chair was to promote a greater transparency around the artistic aspects and financial aspects of the organization. When we decided to make an investment in YOLA, we did a tremendous amount of education with the Board so that everyone understood the commitment and the responsibility of the program. You can get people to follow you if they feel they have the information needed to get behind you, especially around finances. If they feel they have the information about the problem, they feel they can be part of the solution.

I don't see the difference between the basic business models for profit and not for profit organizations. I understand objectively that people feel there's a difference between a nonprofit and for profit model. But they've always been integrated to me. You have a product and you have a mission and, the two are intrinsically connected.

JFK said it best: ""The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation's purpose...and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization." That's true because we are by nature creative beings. That's essential to our survival. So, I'm coming down to a real connection between who we are as people and our inherent and intrinsic need to be creative and express ourselves and do that through a variety of outlets including the performing arts. So what really is the measure of our health as a society is our ability to participate in the arts and support the arts. It's the connection between our inherent need to be creative as a people and the outlets that we provide as a society.

We also need strong leadership. Go to LACMA on a Friday night and compare it to LACMA seven years ago. Not much has changed--except for the leadership. Leadership is a pathway to creativity as much as performing is a pathway to creativity. What this city needs to do is foster investment in a cadre of strong leaders like Deborah Borda of the LA Phil and Michael Govan of LACMA. The way they've shaped and transformed their organizations makes an effective case for increased investment in experienced arts managers with the vision to lead the community.

Personally, I'm dedicated to dialogue on the arts. I believe we must raise awareness of our responsibility to improve underserved communities. Our mission and social imperative includes broadening our thinking, our access, our outreach, our programming--and that comes through framing the conversation in a new way. The widening gulf between income and equality is something that we need to talk about it. You can't address it until you talk about it. In my experience there hasn't been enough dialogue about income equality, and access to the arts.

Marriage Equality, Voter Engagement, Gun Violence Prevention -- those larger social issues have to do with encouraging people to expect more from our elected officials to hold our elected officials accountable. I know it sounds so simple, but we must vote in the people who get things done and vote out the people who don't. It doesn't have anything to do with one particular party. It has to do with putting effective people into office.

How do we grow more people like you? We need thoughtful and visionary leaders in Los Angeles who can help us foster more change at the grassroots level and also at the "grass tops" level too.

DB: Give people a path to feel connected. Give them a sense they are contributing to something because it's a virtual cycle. One of the first things I did as an activist was to write letters on behalf of GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. I didn't have much money at all. But GLAAD would publish a one-page newsletter in which they would talk about certain movies that had a negative or stereotypical portrayal of gays and lesbians that was not representative of the gay and lesbian community at large. I did it because the newsletter and the addresses were in front of me. The easier you make it for people to get involved at the entry level, the more that cycle grows the satisfaction of giving more. I think that's how to grow more engaged people. We have to make it easy for people to participate.

That's why it's not hard to ask people for money or to get involved. You are doing them a favor. You're not asking them for money; you're giving them an invitation to get involved with something they feel good about. You're giving them an invitation to learn about an organization they feel proud of. That's a powerful service we can extend to others: the power of access.

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