It's Personal: A Look at a Campus Arts Gift by a Former Hollywood Power Player

Recent IP coverage of the Eisner Foundation—overseen by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and his wife Jane, as well as their three sons—has focused on their efforts to connect children with the elderly in and around Los Angeles, and rightfully so. The foundation has emerged as a leader in the nascent field of what's called "intergenerational funding."

But as our funder profile underscores, the Eisner clan has other interests like health, arts education, education, violence prevention and foster care.

Despite their broad set of priorities, I was nonetheless surprised by its $5 million gift to Granville, Ohio's Denison University. But before I explain why, let's first get a handle of the gift itself.

The donation will fund a new performing arts building, which will be named the Michael D. Eisner Center for Performing Arts. No one, for the record, should be surprised by this element of the gift. We've profiled many generous donations to either create or expand on-campus art centers across the country. What's more, many of these gifts flow to university towns off the beaten path, like College Station, Texas and Stillwater, Oklahoma.

So why is a relatively hefty $5 million donation flowing to Granville, Ohio, population 5,719? The answer probably won't surprise you. Denison University is Eisner's alma mater. He's a member of the Denison class of 1964 and a life trustee of the college. And as the former CEO of Disney, he has a unique appreciation for how the arts can enrich the college experience:

"The relevance of the performing arts in our individual lives and in society cannot be over-emphasized," said Eisner. "The arts are relational. They can unite us across differences; they can give us new insights, and they should exist in an inter-disciplinary environment as in this new building. There has never been a time when the arts are more important than today."

It looks like the pro-humanities forces on college campuses have another articulate proponent in Eisner. Anecdotally speaking, the tide has seemed to shift in the humanities vs. STEM debate. An uneasy truce has been reached. And while this doesn't guarantee the humanities will see an unprecedented influx of donor dollars in the coming years, it does suggest the "STEM vs liberal arts" argument needn't be a zero-sum game. They can happily co-exist.

So why, exactly, am I surprised by the Eisner Foundation gift? The answer is simply its sheer size. Sure, the foundation has traditionally supported the arts, but if you take a spin on the recent grants portion of their site, nothing would prepare you for the size and scope of its gift to Dension.

The largest arts-related give listed was $300,000 over three years to Turnaround Arts CA to bring "high-quality arts education resources to the state's lowest performing elementary and middle schools." It also gave $50,000 to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and $100,000 to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

Furthermore, every grant on the page—and I fully admit it's not a comprehensive list—went to an organization based in Southern California, far from the oak-lined streets of central Ohio.

The takeaway? The Eisner Foundation—a relatively new funder in the grand scheme of things—is mainly focused on intergenerational funding in Los Angeles, and grantmaking in this area flows in a disciplined programmatic fashion, as you'd expect from a professional foundation. At the same time, though, this outfit is also a vehicle for living donors with wide interests and so we shouldn't be surprised by gifts outside of established program areas.