Herb Alpert, a Veteran Arts Philanthropist, Is Drawn to What "Feels Right"

Herb Alpert—one of the most accomplished musicians of our time, with nine Grammys—started giving money to the arts in a major way in the early 1980s, after he sold the recording label he started with Jerry Moss for a boatload of money. Today, at the age of 80, Alpert is a veteran philanthropist, with a professional foundation, two schools of music named after him, and a high-profile arts prize that bears his name, the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts

Still, don't ask Alpert to get all scientific about his philanthropic strategy. 

"I don't know, man, it's all feel," Alpert recently told me, when I asked about his strategy. We talked at his foundation offices in Santa Monica, a building that also includes a recording studio and is filled with paintings and sculptures that Alpert has created in his second artistic career. "I've lived my life on feel. If it feels right I do it. We don't have a big board of directors where ten people raise their hand, yes or no."

Alpert adds: "I'm a jazz musician, man." 

But even as Alpert describes himself as a "right-brain guy" who is "seat of the pants" in his thinking about philanthropy and has made gifts for reasons that are "knee-jerk," he actually has had a very clear—and smart—vision for his philanthropy from the start. 

"I wanted to do something significant, knowing I'm not the Ford Foundation and I don't have this big treasure," Alpert says. "But I have enough that if it's spent in the right way and the right direction that we could affect lots of lives in a positive way."

With that in mind, Alpert, along with his wife, Lani, and a small foundation staff led by Rona Sebastian, has sought to focus in niches where modest funds can go a long way. "I want to do small things really well," says Alpert. "I want to make sure we're effective in a smaller way. We've zeroed on in projects that make sense for us."

Sebastian echoes that idea, repeating to me Alpert's point about not being the Ford Foundation. This is a funder that is keenly aware of its limits, but also attuned to finding intervention points where it can have a big impact.

One niche where it's been a leader for two decades is funding individual artists. And not just any artists. The Herb Alpert Award in the Arts goes every year to five mid-career artists who are engaged in risk-taking work—the sorts of people who often struggle to get the attention of funders. 

Last Friday, the latest winners of these awards were announced at a luncheon at the Alpert Foundation's headquarters. The prize comes with $75,000, which is not the kind of big money that we sometimes see with today's prizes. The Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards, for example, come with a multi-year cash grant of $225,000.

But as any artist knows, $75k is real money, the kind of money that can make a big difference toward finishing a project or taking on something new. One of this year's winners, Maria Hassabi—a choreographer whose work explores the "tension between the human subject and the artistic object"—told me she would use the money to undertake a new sculpture. 

The cash from the Alpert Award can also make a difference at the most basic level of economic security, and Hassabi said she felt tremendous "relief" when she learned she was a winner. 

The artists who win this prize tend to be bit out there in their work, and that's definitely the case with this year's award winners, whose work is describe here. In turn, this edgy ethos reflects Herb Alpert's own thinking about the arts, a realm he thinks should have few rules.

"I'm intrigued by the mystery of art. I love the creative process," Alpert says. "There's something about arts that resonates with me that you can't put your finger on. What is that thing you feel when you look at a painting that moves you? What is that thing when I stand in front of a Jackson Pollack painting and get goosebumps. Why? I can't analyze what he did. I don't know how he did it."

The Herb Alpert Award in the Arts looks for artists asking questions and taking risks. "They're not doing the beat of the week," says Alpert, a guy who's had five No. 1 albums and 28 albums total on the Billboard Album chart. He goes on: "They're not doing the cookie-cutter arts stuff. They're not in a particular genre. They're experimenters. They're people who are mid-career and they're pushing it as far its they can. And to be able to give them a little assistance to to push it further is something that really gives me pleasure."

Clearly so, since Alpert has been backing this prize, which is overseen by Irene Borger and administered by the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), for 21 years now. The foundation invests significant resources and energy in a rigorous selection process. Many winners of the prize are nominated multiple times before they actually win.

This prize doesn't just bring cash, it brings prestige and connection to other artists through a week-long residency at CalArts. And therein lies an important point about awards to individuals, which many funders avoid: Such awards can become pivot points in people's lives, giving their careers fresh momentum and leading to new professional ties that have all sorts of positive consequences. 

Can a foundation measure this sort of impact with clear metrics? No, and even the MacArthur Foundation has fallen short in its efforts to show concrete impact from its "genius" awards, a topic I explored last year. 

Related - A Word About Those Genius Grants and "Lotto Philanthropy"

For its part, the Herb Alpert Foundation is not interested in bringing in the bean counters from McKinsey to help them measure impact. That's not the way the foundation, or its benefactor, thinks. 

The awards program, it should be noted, is only one of the things that the foundation supports. It also invests in music education, which is another of Alpert's passions. "I think a child doesn't have a total education unless they rub elbows with something creative," he says. One of the foundation's grantees in this area is P.S. ARTS, which provides arts education to thousands of kids in underserved schools in California. Alpert has also generously bankrolled post-secondary music education at UCLA and CalArts. 

Alpert's money finds its way to many other arts organizations, too, and also to organizations focused on well-being and compassion. 

At 80, Alpert is surprisingly youthful and still touring as a musician. His philanthropy also shows no signs of slowing down. Alpert has hoped to give away the bulk of his fortune in his lifetime, but acknowledges that might not be possible. Still, he's trying.