"I Just Do What I Can." Herb Alpert Reflects On Over 30 Years of Arts Philanthropy

Herb Alpert. Photo by Dewey Nicks

Herb Alpert. Photo by Dewey Nicks

On May 13, 2019, the Herb Alpert Foundation will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its Herb Alpert Award in the Arts (HAAIA) in New York City.

Founded and conceived by musician, record producer, sculptor, and artist Herb Alpert and his Grammy-winning vocalist wife, Lani Hall, in conjunction with the California Institute of the Arts, the HAAIA has been awarded to 125 artists in the five disciplines of dance, film/video, music, theater and visual arts. Each artist receives a $75,000 unrestricted prize and a one-week residency at CalArts, which administers the prize on behalf of the Herb Alpert Foundation, which Herb and Lani established in the late 1980s.

We’ve extensively covered Alpert’s grantmaking on Inside Philanthropy, and for good reason. He has been a consistent and articulate proponent of the arts at a time in which the field is under siege. His free-wheeling and improvisational approach belies a coherent underlying strategy that is both forward-looking and impactful. And in an almost uniformly risk-adverse philanthropic climate, Alpert has shown a refreshing tendency to boldly go where other funders are unwilling to tread.

For those unfamiliar with Alpert’s professional backstory, here’s a quick refresher. His albums have sold over 72 million copies, and 29 of his records have reached the Billboard 200. Billboard also listed Alpert as #7 on their Greatest Of All Time Billboard 200 Artists and he is the only artist to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 chart with both a vocal and instrumental track. He co-founded A&M Records with Jerry Moss in 1962 turning it into one of the most successful independent record labels in history. Alpert was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. Six years later, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.

Roughly four years after he spoke with Inside Philanthropy’s David Callahan, I had the chance to check in with Alpert on the deteriorating state of the arts in America, his intuitive approach to grantmaking, and other related ruminations gleaned from over three decades in the philanthropy business.

“It’s All About the Feel”

In 1994, Alpert created the HAAIA in response to the gradual decline of funding for the arts in America. As budgets disappeared, emerging artists lost what had been a cornerstone of American culture and education—music instruction and funding for independent projects. Things have only gone downhill since then.

According to research from Grantmakers in the Arts, total public arts funding when adjusted for inflation decreased by 12.8 percent over the past 20 years. In real dollars, state arts agency appropriations decreased by 25 percent, local funding contracted by 9 percent, and federal funds have remained virtually flat.

“The politicians,” Alpert said, “don’t get it,” “it” being the importance of the arts and music education.

Alpert speaks from experience. “I was a very shy eight year old,” he said. “I went to this music class and they had a table filled with instruments. I picked up a trumpet. As I learned to play, I began to realize that the trumpet could do my talking for me—it was saying what I couldn’t get out of my mouth. Obviously it transformed my life and that’s why I’m so excited about kids having this same type of opportunity.”

I called attention to his foundation’s support for mid-career artists, a frequently overlooked demographic in the arts giving space. Mid-career artists “may not be as sexy as helping someone in the early stages,” Alpert said, “but they’re the ones I’m attracted to. They’re people that need a little help and a little shove. They’ve taken the road less traveled.” 

Alpert turned to a musical analogy to further sharpen his point. “There are two types of artists. There are people that play the right stuff and know the changes and make something that makes you feel good. Then there are those that are looking for the right stuff, the right changes, like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.” These are the types of artists that the foundation looks for, those “trying to express themselves in the most honest way. Those are the ones that have the 'ah' moment.”

This intangible approach to the arts is refreshing in a world where grantseekers, willingly or otherwise, pour over spreadsheets, crunch numbers, and generate compelling metrics to justify the existence of an arts program. Alpert isn’t interested in any of that. “I boil it down to one thing,” he said. “Whether a painter, sculptor or actor, it’s all about the feel, the magic thing you can’t put your finger on.”

Now at this point, some full disclosure is in order. I am a huge Herb Alpert fan. So when the topic of “feel” came up, I couldn’t help myself. I referenced the following anecdote from the documentary “The Wrecking Crew,” which profiled the behind-the-scenes LA session musicians who played on most of the biggest hits of the 1960s.

In 1965, Alpert and his band the Tijuana Brass convened to record the pop standard “A Taste of Honey.” The band wasn’t sure how to kick off the song, so drummer Hal Blaine—the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson called him “the greatest drummer ever”—played a simple introductory beat on his bass drum to guide the players. By simply relying on “feel,” Blaine, who passed away in March, created one of the most indelible openings in pop music. (Blaine comes in at around 0:18.)

To my great relief, the analogy resonated with Alpert, who has always reveled in a loose and improvisational approach to making music. “We got lost in the zeroes and ones,” he said, and “its changed our perspective in music. A lot of the recordings are so tight these days that everything that made it breathe has been lost.”

Support for the Harlem School of the Arts

Alpert’s intuitive and improvisational approach to art, music, and giving—“most of my giving is knee-jerk,” he said—obscures the fact there is an underlying structure at play. “There’s a lot of people around me really making the things work,” he said, including the foundation’s president, Rona Sebastian. “I’m fed information by various sources and they decode it.”

Beyond the operational machinations, Alpert has also had a very clear, intelligent, and highly impactful vision for his philanthropy from the very start. The idea that the artist can inspire compassion has been at the heart of the HAAIAs long before social media began to erode civil discourse. Similarly, he was way ahead of the curve by providing the kind of direct support to artists that even now, over 25 years after launching the awards, remains exceedingly rare.

Alpert is particularly proud of his foundation’s support for the Harlem School of the Arts. Back in 2010, the school announced it would be closing its doors due to a sharp decline in fundraising, an increase in expenses, and questionable financial management by the board. Alpert, sitting in his office 3,000 miles away in California, found this unacceptable.

“I saw an article that they were closing their doors,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it, a community like Harlem… and where were the New Yorkers?” Alpert wondered. His foundation stepped in, and along with other donors, helped bring the school back from the brink.

In late April, the Herb Alpert Foundation awarded the school another $9.5 million. The funding will help HSA in its efforts to become a premier cultural institution, expand its arts education programming, and optimize the space for a broader range of events.

“As artists, we know how important it is for children to have opportunities that allow them to immerse themselves in music, art, dance, and theater,” Alpert said in the school’s press release. “Throughout the past eight years, Lani and I have stayed very involved, and with great pride watched HSA grow stronger, expand its programs, and once again become a pillar for art and culture within this growing population it serves.”

Alpert was a bit more direct in our chat. “We turned it around,” he said.

The “Biggest” Gift of Them All

Alpert’s improvisational-yet-impactful approach to giving also extends to non-arts-related causes like higher ed.

The Herb Alpert Foundation first began supporting the Los Angeles City College (LACC), which serves over 20,000 students, in 2001. In 2013, it awarded a $300,000 grant earmarked for scholarship support, among other items. Three years later, the foundation announced a $10.1 million donation to the college to provide all music majors at the school with a tuition-free education.

The gift was important for many reasons. First, its size. At the time, it was the largest gift to an individual community college in the history of Southern California and the second-largest gift in the history of the state. Second, the gift found Alpert embracing the idea of donor-funded free tuition roughly two years before it became a hot trend across the larger higher ed giving space.

And third—and most importantly—the gift still remains a lamentably rare example of a large gift flowing to a community college. Just how rare? While colleges and universities raised a staggering $43.6 billion in 2017, only 1.5 percent of charitable gift dollars raised by educational institutions went to two-year institutions, despite the fact that community colleges serve 49.2 percent of the country’s college students. Community colleges also do a far better job at boosting social and economic mobility than their Ivy League brethren.

Though Alpert grew up in Los Angeles, he wasn’t an alumnus of LACC. “My brother went there,” he said. “My ex-partner [record producer] Lou Adler went there. I've visited the school. It’s alive. It’s kickin’.” Alpert understood his gift was anomalous, calling it “something far field.”

And then something very interesting occurred. The gift, according to Alpert, eventually generated more positive feedback than any of his previous gift. “We’ve supported 92 organizations” throughout the years, he said, “and this was the biggest one.”

“Helping the Average Joe”

When I asked Alpert to explain the overwhelming reaction to the LACC gift, he didn’t point to the aforementioned data or reel off boilerplate language about equity. He simply said, “because it helps the average person. It helps people transition into a university. It was not a sexy gift, this was just helping the average Joe.”

“Everyone’s looking for the same thing,” he continued. “Everyone wants meaning in their life, and some people’s dreams are torpedoed by their conditions. If they have the guts and the willingness to put in the work and time, they can get out the hole,” and community colleges provide people with the opportunity to do precisely that.

Here we see the impact of Alpert’s intuitive approach within the larger context of today’s higher ed giving landscape.

We’ve seen many donors making big gifts to boost access to economically disadvantaged students at elite universities as of late. These donors argue, rightfully, that their mega-gifts also help “average Joes.” But there’s a critical difference here. As critics of such gifts have repeatedly pointed out, millions—and in some cases, billions—of dollars are flowing to incredibly selective and expensive schools. The gifts will help, at the most, a small number of students over the course of many years.

Meanwhile, Alpert’s decades of giving to LACC and his recent commitment, which allowed LACC to increase the number of music majors from 175 to 250, supports an institution that mainly caters to economically disadvantaged students and is part of a higher ed funding landscape that’s been hard hit by state budget cuts.

No wonder the gift earned Alpert the greatest plaudits of his philanthropic career.

In addition to the May celebration in New York, Alpert is also excited about some upcoming shows featuring his sculptures in China, Jackson Hole, Palm Springs, and Palm Desert. “Herb Alpert: A Visual Melody,” his 2018 show at Heather James Fine Art, included bronze sculptures averaging 17 feet tall—“free-flowing gestures filled with unexpected curves and twists, much like Alpert’s music,” wrote the LA Times’ Jessica Gelt.

It fits a familiar pattern: Alpert would rather make art than collect it. “I didn’t want to buy a Monet or Van Gough and stick it on my wall and do it for my own gratification,” he said. Nor, for that matter, is there the possibility that at the age of 84, Alpert’s giving will slow down anytime soon, especially during these increasingly unsettling and fraught times.

“I can’t put myself in other people’s brains. I just do what I can as an individual,” he said, which is to support arts organizations and artists. “The real artists are the truth seekers, they tell us what’s really going on. It’s crucially important to support freedom of expression and freedom of imagination.”

“There’s always hope things can get better.”