The queens of NYC philanthropy
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
For years women have given time and money to create non-profit organisations, promote social and legislative changes, build communities, educate and support a variety of arts institutions all over the world. Nowhere is this more felt than in New York City – a cultural, diplomatic, financial and scientific hub of 7.8 million people, where shortfalls in government spending have long prompted the city’s most powerful women to rally others. And while the tuxedos and taffeta that marked the 1980s heyday of New York’s gala scene have given way to more modest events, the city’s philanthropic zeal is unlike any other.
“New York has the most active cultural, educational and charitable sector in America,” says Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, a $16bn international social-justice charity. “No other city comes close. Philanthropists here provide the time, talent and treasure.”
The scene began in the 1700s as aid focused on underserved women and children and has since grown to encompass everything from protecting the environment (The Central Park Conservancy raises around $7mn a year from events) to criminal justice reform (Agnes Gund’s Art for Justice fund has awarded $125mn to address wrongful incarceration) and raising funds for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (last year’s Met Gala raked in $17.4mn).
“Historically, women have been drawn to the idea of being generous – with their time, money and social capital,” says Jeannie Infante Sager, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University. “They tend to give holistically – often collectively – with empathy being the biggest driver. They’re less motivated by tax advantages and naming opportunities.”
“What makes American philanthropy different is the concept of doing more,” adds Sager. “[19th-century French thinker] Alexis de Tocqueville noted this exceptionalism and our ability to unite and form associations to ‘give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the Antipodes’. It’s equality in action here; we have made it a part of life and incentivised it as the norm.”
Barbara Tober, the patron of the arts
“In the ’70s and ’80s it was all about a pretty party, but we’ve passed that period and now it’s more about the seriousness of a subject – with a little fun thrown in,” says Barbara Tober. The 89-year-old is the founder of Acronym, a venture-capital fund focused on diverse arts-related causes including the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, the Museum of Arts + Design and more recently the clean-energy Arco del Tiempo installation that’s being constructed in Houston, Texas.
Tober was born in 1934 in Summit, New Jersey, and spent her early years on a “beautiful farm with exquisite moths, no pesticides, in [her] hip boots out in the swamps”. Later, having spent 30 years as an editor at Condé Nast, Tober and her late husband Donald (the former CEO of Sugar Foods and the force behind Sweet’n Low) started to focus their efforts and resources on the things that brought them joy – namely music, art and the ballet.
“We always felt that there were people to help,” says Tober from her home-turned-arts museum, where Dale Chihuly glass sculptures sit comfortably with Biedermeier chairs, a red lacquered Chinese chest and family photographs by Harry Benson – “all a tribute to craftsmanship”.
“We were supportive in a small way at first,” says Tober of her early efforts joining “ladies’ groups”, boards and organising fundraisers for various causes. As the years have progressed, she has become further involved with educational initiatives – at the Culinary Institute of America, The Frick Collection and through the American Austrian Foundation, which “is completely committed to sharing the latest ideas in medicine with doctors all over the world”. In October, Tober’s commitment to charity was honoured at New York’s ACE Foundation.
Tober’s recent gift of naming seven of the iconic Lobmeyr chandeliers at the Opera – the beloved galactic lights were installed 50 years ago and are integral to the soaring performance space – was perfectly on brand. “Barbara always lights up a room, and through her philanthropy she has lit up New York,” says Henry Timms, president and CEO of Lincoln Center. “For decades she has championed the arts – not just at Lincoln Center – and the chandeliers are a fitting gift for such a luminous person.”
Deeda Blair, the brains trustee
Catherine “Deeda” Blair was born in Chicago in 1931 and made her debut into society at 18. Following a brief first marriage, she wedded William McCormick Blair Jr, the former US ambassador to Denmark, in 1961. The couple settled in Washington, DC, where they were at the centre of the social scene. Blair, a Warhol muse and one of Truman Capote’s swans, hosted fundraisers as successful as they were stylish. Among her circle were Hubert de Givenchy, Cecil Beaton and Helmut Newton.
Today Blair, who relocated to New York in 2005, is best known as a philanthropist of science and medicine. She was involved for decades with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington, DC, also working with the Breast Cancer Taskforce at the National Cancer Institute of the NIH, the Harvard School of Public Health Aids Initiative and consulting for Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz.
Following the suicide of her only son in 2004, Blair leveraged her background to advance the study of the brain. “Mental health is severely underfunded in this country,” she says, “and suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people aged 15-34.” Faced with this glaring statistic, she has used grace, brilliance – and her chequebook – to create meaningful change in the field.
The Deeda Blair Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain – a tribute to her late son – was established in 2021 to drive innovation in mental-health research. “I chose to put resources into the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health [FNIH] because I didn’t want the office or staff,” says Blair. “Instead, we have an outstanding cross-disciplinary selection committee including writer and professor of psychology at Columbia University, Andrew Solomon (Far from the Tree); Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health; and Samantha Boardman Rosen of Weill Cornell Medical College. Together we choose cutting-edge MDs and PhDs who receive awards for research focused on the next generation. We fund unproven ideas so they can take risks. I just ask to see their failed experiments, too, so that further time isn’t wasted.”
“[Deeda] has the diplomat’s social gift for bringing together the people who need to meet and introducing them in such a way that they end up collaborating on crucial projects; but she also has the scientist’s ability to understand those projects,” says Solomon. “Her trademark mix of grace and insight is one I have never encountered elsewhere.”
“A friend and mentor of mine, Mary Lasker, used to ask, ‘What is missing and what is needed?’ This is the basis for my philanthropy. Fundraising is a must for this work, as are passion and commitment,” says Blair.
While her initiative is largely privately funded, Blair has supporters and special projects such as Deeda Blair: Food, Flowers & Fantasy (Rizzoli), with proceeds going to support her cause. The dazzling parties that were once the norm have been replaced with more intimate affairs, including gatherings at Christie’s and Verdura to launch her book. “In this field I haven’t made a transformative impact, but I haven’t given up,” she says of her quest, one that has bestowed seven grants, with three more recipients on the horizon.
Others disagree. “Deeda Blair is truly the ‘grande dame’ of biomedical innovation, especially in the realm of neurosciences and mental health,” says Julie Gerberding, CEO of the FNIH. “Her activism as a member of the FNIH board for almost three decades has energised the private-public partnerships with NIH that will modernise the diagnosis and treatment of serious mental-health disorders.”
Andrew Solomon adds: “Deeda’s default position is to save lives. She has a genius for spotting the areas in science that are about to explode and getting them to the point where others with greater resources will take an interest. The brain remains a faraway planet in many ways, but we understand more of it than we would without her.”
To donate to the Deeda Blair Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain, visit fnih.org/deeda-blair-initiative-donation-page
Elizabeth Kurpis, the events maestro
As the founder of her eponymous fashion-focused legal practice – Kurpis Legal – Elizabeth Kurpis is accustomed to balancing clients including Loeffler Randall, Tenoverten nails and influencer Stephanie Hill (aka The Style Bungalow). But it’s her work on behalf of The Frick Collection and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) that is closest to her heart.
“I’ve been involved with the Young Fellows Ball at The Frick over the years – curating guest lists, working with fashion and spirits sponsors – and it’s one of the few black-tie galas left,” says the 41-year-old lawyer and mother of two from her home in Saddle River, New Jersey. “I miss being in gowns; everything has got more and more casual,” adds Kurpis, who is dressed in a vintage Gucci skirt, cashmere turtleneck and over-the-knee Manolo Blahnik boots.
In addition to the Young Fellows Ball being a glittery affair, the annual party provides “essential support for the Frick’s Art Reference Library and education department, which serves students from New York City public schools as well as digital audiences around the world”, explains Rowan Moody, head of individual giving at The Frick Collection. The museum raised more than $30mn during its 2022 fiscal year alone, and recently announced it has received $235mn in private donations for its renovation.
Other causes are more personal. “My mother was treated for leukaemia [at MSK] and received best-in-class care,” she says of her work on behalf of the hospital. “They handled everything so graciously.” She joined the Associates Committee shortly after her mother’s death and has remained involved with everything from the Winter Luncheon held at the iconic Rainbow Room at the top of Rockefeller Center to the Fall Party at The Plaza (“that one is cocktail attire”, she says). In between these, she works on Halloween parties and paediatric proms, physician talks and the annual family-friendly favourite, the Bunny Hop, a children’s day party that benefits cancer research and patient care programs at MSK Kids.
“It used to be more flash, but now everyone is focused on making more money, not spending on parties,” says Kurpis of the current charity scene. “New York is a hard city. And if things are difficult for me, then they are really difficult for others. I think people share this view and give back in so many ways. It’s not just about money – time is very valuable too.”
Marifé Hernández, the grande dame of music
Long a staple of the New York charity circuit, Marifé Hernández has worked for the arts, voter rights, New York Presbyterian Hospital and countless other civic organisations for more than 40 years.
A Puerto Rican-born only child, she was raised in Argentina and France, with summers spent in Salzburg and Vienna, where she was steeped in classical music. Hernández has always been impressed by “the exceptional level of doing in the United States”, a trait she attributes to the fact that everyone is a transplant in one way or another. “In other countries – South America, Asia – families care for families, but here we take care of one another. It’s just ingrained in the American psyche,” she says. This is especially heightened in New York, which serves as a hub for finance, immigration, entrepreneurship, the United Nations and more.
After years as a television producer and on-air personality for WPIX in New York, as well as in marketing and, later, politics (she was the chief of protocol at the State Department during the Carter administration, where she entertained Margaret Thatcher and Pierre Trudeau), Hernández has devoted her life to giving back to the city she loves. A particular passion project is the Vienna Philharmonic. The orchestra performs at Carnegie Hall every year and has an academy for young musicians in Austria that she has helped to support financially, as well as through gilded parties and concerts on both sides of the Atlantic.
“She is the face of the Vienna Philharmonic Society in America,” explains Daniel Froschauer, the orchestra’s chairman and first violinist. “It’s more than just money – it’s a personal relationship with the orchestra, our musicians and our academists. She’s widening our audience, bringing groups and significant individuals to hear our concerts both in New York and in Europe. She’s explained to us the stratagem for enlarging our presence abroad including hosting press lunches for us at Carnegie Hall. Her commitment to the Vienna Philharmonic is rivalled only by her enthusiasm for music and arts. Marifé is ensuring a future for the unique sound of the Vienna Philharmonic.”
“I believe in the importance of art for children,” says Hernández. When music education was cut in the 1970s, she started to fill the void through work with the Opera Lafayette and the National Symphony Orchestra, among other institutions. “I learned early on – at Wellesley College – about the power of committees and women’s ability to raise money,” she says. She applies her well-honed skills to a fundraiser she hosts annually at a private club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that benefits the Vienna Philharmonic Society. “We can only fit 150 people, but that makes it a smaller, more intimate party,” she says of the black-tie affair. “It’s not lavish, but personal. When it comes to lavish: been there, done that.”
Susan Fales-Hill, the lady of the dance
Italian-born Susan Fales-Hill is an author, television writer and producer (she is currently a consulting writer/producer of Max’s And Just Like That…). She’s also an International Best Dressed List Hall of Famer and an ardent advocate for the arts and education. Fales-Hill’s passions are many, including St Paul’s School in New Hampshire, Harvard College and the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), in particular its diversity effort ABT Rise.
“There’s nothing like the communal, ephemeral experience of dance,” says Fales-Hill. “I grew up going to the ballet, so it’s in my heart and blood.” Understanding that “ballet has traditionally not been by or for people of colour”, she has been on a “crusade for the inclusion of marginalised people – dancers, teachers and choreographers – so that the ballet is accessible to a wider audience”. Every year she brings 10-20 African-American women to the ballet – this year to Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate. “It’s important for the dancers to see diversity too,” she says.
As co-chair of ABT’s trustees emeriti, Fales-Hill is involved with decision-making around fundraising and expenditures, and has previously worked on the glamorous Spring and Fall Galas. Events like these raise approximately seven per cent of ABT’s annual budget, and are among the organisation’s most important – not to mention some of the city’s most festive. Together with other New Yorkers – socialites Muffie Potter Aston and Blaine Trump, and film producer Sarah Arison among them – Fales-Hill is committed to adding “kids of colour to the school, as well as dancers of colour to the corps and as principals”, she says.
Her efforts are paying off. “Susan is a master networker, organiser and connector – this is her superpower,” says Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. “She uses her boundless energy to benefit the cultural landscape of New York City, particularly at American Ballet Theatre, where she’s had a material impact on the diversity of the organisation. She mentors dancers and is a compelling proselytiser for the cause.”