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At L.A. Music Center, fund raising is an art

``We want to be able to take some risks, artistically. Risk-taking is more expensive than doing the safe things,'' says Michael Newton, president of the Performing Arts Council of the Music Center, a tri-theater complex in the center of Los Angeles, which for nearly 21 years has been bringing music, dance, opera, and drama to southern California. Some of the risks the Music Center has been able to take have been productions of ``The Shadow Box'' and ``Children of a Lesser God,'' which began at the Mark Taper Forum. Both went on to win Tony Awards on Broadway. Neil Simon's ``Biloxi Blues,'' winner of this year's Tony for best play, premi`ered at the Music Center's Ahmanson Theatre.

To accomplish their artistic goals, the Performing Arts Council relies on a creative multifaceted funding approach for this center, which has ``the largest arts fund-raising drive in the country,'' according to Claire Segal, the council's director of public affairs and marketing.

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This year's goal for the center's Unified Fund is $9.5 million. The money goes to support the Music Center's resident companies -- the Mark Taper Forum, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Music Center Association, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and the Joffrey Ballet (which divides its time with New York) -- as well as several community-service and educational programs.

It's the local support that keeps the center going. To raise the tidy $9.5 million, Mr. Newton divides the various sources of funding into categories -- corporations, foundations, large individual donors, the general public. Then he further subdivides those categories and puts someone in charge of each section.

That someone is usually a volunteer. The Performing Arts Council has more than 4,000 volunteers, who do everything from fund raising to conducting tours of the Music Center to recruiting new volunteers.

``We're very proud of our volunteers,'' says Esther Wachtell, vice-chairman of the Unified Fund campaign, a voluntary position. ``And we work hard to hold them -- to make sure that we involve people in such a way that they can feel fulfilled.''

Newton is careful to match the volunteer with the job to be done. For instance, the volunteer chairman assigned to solicit donations from corporations in the aerospace industry will probably be an executive of a company in that industry. He or she will head up a team of volunteers, and each team, or section, is given a goal -- say $100,000, or $500,000 -- to be raised from that industry. This program has been well received by corporations.

``It's hard to envision an advanced community without an expression of the various forms of art,'' says Joseph Pinola, chairman and chief executive officer of First Interstate Bank and this year's chairman of the Unified Fund.

``Since First Interstate is taking its profits out of the community, we feel we have an obligation to put something back into the community, and the Music Center is an excellent way to do it. Our artists go out to the schools and perform; it broadens the experience of the children and hopefully contributes to the future.''

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Two longstanding support groups that donate substantial funds each year are the Fraternity of Friends, a group of Los Angeles businessmen, and the Amazing Blue Ribbon, a women's group founded in 1968 by Dorothy Chandler, whose early fund-raising efforts helped launch the Music Center. A new organization called In the Wings comprises young business and professional men and women who sell about 600 tickets a year for a Sample Series of performances in the various theaters.

Special fund-raising events are scheduled throughout the year. In September, an evening planned around the unveiling of Chanel's couture collection netted $200,000. Chanel Inc. donated $150,000 of that. Although most of the Music Center's corporate contributors are locally based, the donation by Chanel is indicative of a growing trend toward gifts from companies outside the Los Angeles area.

The big event for spring will be the Mercado, a three-day market festival in the Music Center Plaza, where Los Angeles department stores and specialty shops will be donating millions of dollars of merchandise to be sold at bargain prices.

The Music Center's income from contributions accounts for only one-third of its total yearly revenue, but it is a vital third.

``The contributed income allows us to do more challenging works,'' Newton says. ``If we had to depend solely on earned income, we might not be as willing to do original, experimental works in the Mark Taper Forum, for instance.

``There is a rising tide of support for the arts in this city. There is a cultural renaissance going on downtown, and what it's done is to create a level of excitement in this community about the arts. People are realizing that the arts here are not something to be added on after everything else is provided for, but that they are an integral and vital part of the community experience.''

When the Music Center opened in 1964, it sparked a downtown revitalization movement. Urban decay gave way to condominiums and multipurpose business and shopping complexes. A few blocks away, the new Los Angeles Theatre Center opened in September, and the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art is scheduled to open next year.

``Over the last 20 years, the Music Center has had an enormous influence on the arts,'' Ms. Segal says, ``not just in Los Angeles, but all over the country.''

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