On Second Thought, I Love the Philharmonic: How David Bohnett Became an Arts Philanthropist

When David Bohnett first turned to serious philanthropy after scoring big in the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, it was all about social justice—specifically, his LGBT rights giving, as I reported here last week.

While Bohnett was personally a fan of the arts, he saw more urgent needs for his money elsewhere. That's a common view among certain donors, with Bill Gates last year implying that it was immoral to fund museums when people were being felled by dread diseases. 

Flash forward 15 years: Through his foundation, David Bohnett has now given a total of $8.8 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and $3.5 million to the LA Philharmonic, as well as an array of smaller gifts to places like the Museum of Contemporary Art and the League of American Orchestras.

How did that happen? 

As Bohnett tells the story in an interview, he got drawn into arts funding because of his excitement about life in Los Angeles, the city where he had first lived as an undergrad at USC and to which he eagerly returned after getting an MBA at the University of Michigan. 

When Bohnett first arrived in LA as a college freshman, he started going to concerts at the LA Philharmonic and kept going for years. Eventually he also discovered LACMA, first becoming an annual member in 1991.

In 1998, Bohnett sold his company, GeoCities, to Yahoo and netted several hundred million dollars from the deal. Within two years, he was deep into his LGBT philanthropy and also giving to local social service organizations and to other civic causes. But in 2001, he wrote his first big check for the arts, giving $10,000 to LACMA. He became a steady donor at this level over the next few years. 

The big turning point for Bohnett, though, came when the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in Los Angeles in 2003. The Frank Gehry-designed building, sheathed in stainless steel with a matte finish, was breathtaking, as were the acoustics inside the hall. 

Bohnett was blown away: "I thought, this is a signature event for the city. I love Los Angeles." And with that love, Bohnett felt a responsibility to help bolster the city through giving for the arts, as well as other things.

After the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, he signed up for one of the major sponsorships, laying out $116,500 for the LA Philharmonic, which, at that point, was his biggest gift outside the social justice space. 

Of course, once a donor writes a check that big, the serious cultivation begins and Bohnett started getting drawn more deeply into what the LA Phil was doing. As he did, he saw an opportunity to help the organization "reach underserved communities... to help broaden the access, broaden the programming, broaden the awareness, broaden the diversity." He adds, "That was the bridge between social justice and the arts for me."

This outlook, that arts organizations in LA needed to connect with more of the city and boost their social impact, became the framework that guided Bohnett's increasing giving to both the LA Philharmonic and LACMA. 

In 2005, Bohnett graduated to the big leagues of arts philanthropy when he kicked in $1 million for the LA Phil's endowment drive. And he kept giving money beyond that, joining the LA Phil's board and eventually becoming its chairman (a position he recently stepped down from, after five years). 

Bohnett feels like he's had an impact at LA Phil as "a gay man known as an activist coming on the board." Bohnett helped recruit the organization's new music director, Gustavo Dudamel, from Venzuala, and was profoundly influenced by the experience of going to that country and seeing its huge commitment to music education that reaches all classes of people starting at a very young age. 

During Bohnett's five years as chair of LA Phil, the board committed new resources to music education in Los Angeles, and now runs three sites in underserved areas of Los Angeles where hundreds of kids are getting free instruments and free music education. "It's proven," Bohnett says, "that music education helps improve discipline and improve performance in school across the board." And as public money pulls back from the music ed space, private money needs to step up. "That's right in line with my view of how to build a fair and just society," Bohnett says. 

Bohnett has given even bigger money to LACMA, pledging $1 million a year to the museum for five years in 2007 and also becoming a trustee there. That growing involvement came as Bohnett expanded his own collection of modern and contemporary art.

He was struck by how totally different the boards of LACMA and the LA Phil are. While the museum draws art fanatics with specific and often proprietary tastes, the LA Phil's board is less complex, populated by people who just love classical music. 

Not surprisingly, Bohnett's arts giving and his leadership in LA eventually caught the attention of national players in this space, and in 2012, he was appointed by the White House as a trustee to John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 

Bohnett wasn't especially hankering to get involved with the Kennedy Center, but felt it was a big deal. "You're serving your country. It's a presidential appointment."