Meet the Colburns: A Wealthy Family With a Love For Classical Music

The Colburn family was once on Forbes' America's Richest Families list, boasting a $1.2 billion net worth in one year. Patriarch Richard D. Colburn steered Consolidated Electrical Distributors (CED), which distributes electrical equipment for residential and commercial use, a privately-held business that continues to be run by Colburn family members. The late Richard Colburn was born in Illinois, but spent much of his life in California, passing away in Beverly Hills. He kept a low-profile, quoting his father, who said, "Fools' names and fools' faces often appear in public places."

One of the few overt signs of Colburn's philanthropy is the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles, a performing arts school focusing on music and dance that bears his name. The family's work at the school, however, only begins to tell the story of this wealthy family's committment to music and music education. Colburn, in addition to being a successful businessman, also had a deep passion for music, and was an amateur viola player for much of his life. He passed last decade at 92.

Some of Colburn's involvements included serving as a lifetime director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and as a cofounder of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He was also a prolific collector of instruments, and leant them out to young musicians. Then there's the Colburn School, which Colburn said he hoped would become "L.A.'s Juilliard."

Part of the reason why Colburn was so dedicated to music education is Herbert Zipper, a Viennese conductor who survived Nazi concentration camps. Zipper made it to the United States and met Colburn while they were both in Chicago. At the time, Zipper was conducting school concerts and teaching music to youth. Zipper felt that music and the arts had the ability to humanize people, and connected with Colburn on that belief. 

A few years before his death, Colburn endowed the Colburn Foundation, which is currently steered by a small board of directors and staff. Several Colburn family members sit on the foundation's board. Another board member is executive director of LA Opera.

The Colburn Foundation's mission is "promote a vibrant classical music community, particularly in Southern California, and to make grants to artistically excellent organizations for the performance and presentation of classical music, as well as for music education and the training of musicians." 

While the Colburn Foundation continues to direct millions to the Colburn School, other big winners include Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Opera Company, and LA Philharmonic. The foundation's work also includes places like California Institute of the Arts, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, Long Beach Opera, The New School - New York String Orchestra Seminar, and Taos School of Music. While Colburn clearly has a preference for Southern California in its grantmaking, other areas of the country like New York, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico also have outfits that receive funding.

Apart from the Colburn Foundation, one of Richard D. Colburn's sons, Richard W. Colburn, also has a charitable vehicle, the Negaunee Foundation, which he runs with his wife, Robin. Through this foundation, this second generation Colburn also focuses on music and music education, mostly in Chicagoland. This Colburn also supports the Colburn School and is a director of the Colburn Foundation. 

The Colburns via Negaunee Foundation has given strong support to places like Chicago Lyric Opera, and the Ravinia Festival, an outdoor music venue in Highland Park, Illinois. Chicago Symphony Orchestra is an especially important outfit for the family and home to the Negaunee Institute for Learning, whose mission is to "create and sustain connections to music for individuals and communities." In 2014, Negaunee Foundation made a $15 million gift to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The Colburn Foundation is much more accessible and transparent than the Negaunee Foundation, whose work is mostly ascertained through 990s. The Colburn Foundation, on the other hand, has a strong web presence. For a complete overview of these charities, read our guides below.

Another Colburn vehicle, the Colburn Music Fund, pumps millions into the Colburn School in Los Angeles every year. Expect this wealthy family to continue to be laser-focused on music and music education in their philanthropy, mainly in the Los Angeles and Chicago areas.