Tag Archives: performing arts

Philanthropic Joy

Sara Miller McCune has been discreetly and powerfully fueling the performing arts, education, social justice, and the Jewish community in Santa Barbara County for decades.

The renowned publishing trailblazer (she founded SAGE Publishing as a single woman in 1965 and remains Executive Chairwoman of the Board of Directors of this international scholarly publishing empire), is also the co-founder of the McCune Foundation (in 1990), a locally focused philanthropic organization whose mission is to build social capital in both Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.

Sara, who was raised in a working-class Jewish family in Queens, New York, recalls being introduced to philanthropy early. Her family embraced the ancient Jewish tradition of Tzedakah, which in Hebrew literally means “righteous behavior.” It’s also the closest word in the Hebrew language to “philanthropy” but it encompasses so much more than just charitable giving. As she describes it, “Tzedakah” isn’t just about being generous; it’s the moral and ethical imperative for all Jews to put contributing to the greater good of one’s community at the center of one’s life.

She recalls that there was always a box set aside in her childhood home, where family members would deposit their spare change. This money would then be used as part of the family’s charitable giving – their good deeds, or mitzvot. Giving from this mindset, which values connection and mutual support above all else, taught her (and her younger brother) that when a neighbor’s social or economic burdens are lifted, everyone benefits.

“Philanthropy, when it’s done right, strengthens a local economy. It’s woven into the fabric of community life. And what could be better than that?”

-Sara Miller McCune

Philanthropy, as Sara points out, isn’t about charity: it’s about relationship building, and she learned how valuable and joy-inducing this work is at the feet of her parents.

“For me, growing up this way, I wound up discovering eventually, especially over these past few decades, that being a philanthropist makes me very happy. And I feel lucky that I get to give back.”

Sharing resources, Sara has found, releases a very unique and powerful kind of joy into a community. It’s hard to put this feeling into words, but she describes how it frees people to step into creativity and self-sufficiency and problem-solving in really unique ways.

Teach Your Children Well

And this philanthropic joy doesn’t depend on the size of your gift. Sara shares how, based on the example of former SAGE Board Member and publishing colleague Jerry Kaplan, she began the practice of giving her young grandchildren a modest amount of money at Thanksgiving. She instructed them that this money (which was separate from any holiday gifts they’d receive) was theirs to give to any cause or organization they felt passionate about. Then, come spring, during Passover, they’d tell her what they’d done with that money. 

“I loved hearing what they were excited about because it let me get to know them better and brought us closer together. One granddaughter was passionate about ferrets one year, another grandchild wanted to help save the environment, two grandkids gave to a classmate whose house had burned down, and so on. I got to see each of them experience that indescribable philanthropic joy for themselves.”

Philanthropy as an Engine for Change

Sara has become keenly aware of how vital philanthropy is for real, meaningful societal change.

Philanthropists are incredibly in tune with what’s happening in their local communities and are often able to identify problems quickly. She points out the entrepreneurial nature of philanthropy, and the smart risks philanthropists are able and willing to take in order to solve a problem before it escalates and negatively impacts the broader community. But again, this isn’t about largesse.

“People don’t realize that philanthropy provides a lot of employment and creates jobs, on both sides of the equation. Philanthropy, when it’s done right, strengthens a local economy. It’s woven into the fabric of community life. And what could be better than that?”

Finding the Right Philanthropic Partners

Miller McCune understands that strong philanthropic relationships are built on cultivating and expanding a shared passion. For instance, the Board of a performing arts organization should seek out philanthropic organizations that already have a demonstrable commitment to funding the arts: in other words, like attracts like.

“I look for good leadership within the organization,” Miller McCune shares. “Especially with regard to their treatment of staff, their fiscal clarity, and how they are achieving their mission and goals.”

Relighting the Marquee

You are sitting up front in the ornate Granada Theatre. It has been too long since you have had an experience like this. 

The motionless curtain tantalizes. Impatient for its revelations, you look around and up to the balcony: so many people (1,500) sharing the same exhilaration. You feel a richness coming back to life. Then–the curtain rises. 

For Hayley Firestone Jessup, the Granada’s vice president of advancement, that moment, when it comes, will be “relief, huge emotional relief.” 

State Street Ballet & SB Choral Society – “Carmina Burana” Granada Theatre 5/30/08

“It will be the lights, the sounds, the visuals, the excitement,” Firestone Jessup says breathlessly. “The beauty of live artists again. The color of the stage. The sound of the musicians.”

For Firestone Jessup and her colleagues, who have seen the theater’s staff drop from 35 to 10, the long months of the pandemic have made it all too apparent “that without music, theatre, and dance one’s life becomes incredibly flat.”

The theater itself is a beacon of culture for not only Santa Barbara, but the entire state and country. Following a top-to-bottom seismic upgrade and architectural restoration in 2008, the Granada was reborn as the downtown home for eight resident companies including the Opera Santa Barbara, The Santa Barbara Symphony, and State Street Ballet. 

To accommodate the varied performances showcased in the now 96-year-old venue required intensive alterations to what had most recently been a multiplex cinema. This included enlarging the stage for the opera, making the floor flexible for dancers, enhancing acoustics for the symphony, and widening the proscenium arch for Broadway tours. 

The result is a venue where Yo-Yo Ma, the Peking Acrobats, and the Beach Boys all find the amenities and high quality that bring them back time and time again.

Beyond the performances within the theater, the Granada provides Santa Barbara and the region with so much more. Tourists take selfies by the entrance of Santa Barbara’s highest “skyscraper” – the city’s icon of the performing arts and the cultural vibrancy to be found on this particular stretch of California’s coast.

“The Granada adds a dimension to the community life of Santa Barbara just by its presence, just by the lights on the marquee,” Firestone Jessup says. “While we have taken an intermission, we will be back!”

The Community’s Theatre

Not only is the Lobero the longest running theatre in California (founded in 1873), but it is relentless, with over 200 nights of performances a year serving more than 70,000 people. 

For Executive Director David Asbell, whose 23-year tenure seems short given the Lobero’s history, the job is all about serving Santa Barbara and its vibrant performing arts scene. 

AHA! Santa Barbara performs on the Lobero Stage

“The staff and board, we look at our role really as stewards of this great building and tradition,” Asbell says. “The most important thing we can be doing, job number one, is all about our community. The collaborations we are most proud of are with local arts organizations and local artists.” 

The Lobero has four pillars of performance: classical music, jazz, dance, and theatre. While the theatre has been – and is regularly – graced by world-class performers, the Lobero’s staff is heavily focused on giving local artists and youth a platform to thrive and grow into their craft. 

“We are not going to make the music, but we will make sure that a local musician or dance company has the best opportunity at succeeding,” Asbell says. “The most important goal for us is to complement and support the local arts scene.” 

To accomplish this, the theatre heavily subsidizes or gifts the space whether for the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony, a nonprofit youth service provider like AHA!, or the Santa Barbara Vocal Jazz Foundation’s “Journey Through Jazz” residency. Journey Through Jazz is a seven-week in-classroom program during which local grade schoolers learn about jazz music and history, which culminates in a performance at the Lobero. 

Jim Dougherty is the Lobero’s Director of Planned Giving. For him, the Journey Through Jazz performances have their own “special magic” because of the audience that comes through the doors. 

“These are not your typical theatre-goers,” Dougherty says. “You have whole families. The best is watching a sibling watch their siblings up on stage. I just love to see the families’ reactions. It’s absolutely sweet.” 

That is what he misses the most about the theatre being closed for such a long stretch of 2020. 

For Asbell, Dougherty, and the entire Lobero team, it is moments like those that the theatre was built for: community.