Anyone can support the arts. All it takes is a donation. Yet some local donors make an art of giving, lofting it to a high level — literally, their names are on buildings — by contributing money, time and expertise. These philanthropic champs know that ticket sales and museum admissions fall far short of covering the costs, and that in the wake of the Great Recession, donations are needed more than ever. So in this season of giving, meet a group of outstanding local arts donors who support music, art, theater and more. Their contributions provide year-round cultural enrichment for us all.

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Donor: Carolyn Farris

Why do you support MCASD?

"I feel it’s a first-class organization, and first-class organizations are worthy of support."

How long have you been a donor?

"Since 1978."

Do you paint?

"I did some painting in the past — it was fun. But being so involved in collecting, I knew enough to know how lousy I was."

What are some other institutions you support?

"The Leakey Foundation and The School of American Ballet."

Hugh Davies still remembers the anxiety he felt when Carolyn Farris yawned during his 1983 interview for the director’s job at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

"I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m cooked. It’s all over,’ " recalls Davies, who worried that he was boring one of the museum’s most generous and influential supporters.

Not so. Davies was hired, and he and Farris forged an enduring bond based on their passion for art and loyalty to the museum — "It’s on par with a lot of contemporary art museums in the world," Farris says proudly.

Born in Los Angeles, reared in Beverly Hills and educated at Vassar College, the 78-year-old La Jolla resident is a longtime member of MCASD’s board of trustees. Farris has served on numerous committees and held every major office, including board president. The largest gallery in the museum’s La Jolla location bears her name and that of her late husband, Jack.

Davies has called her "the single most important donor of artworks in the history of our mu­seum." Farris contributed Jasper Johns’ Light Bulb I (1958), Frank Stella’s Sabra III (1967, inset) and Sinjerli 1 (1967, in photo above) and Ellsworth Kelly’s Red Blue Green (1963), a painting so colorfully iconic that even casual museumgoers may recognize it. Davies hopes other examples of her 51-work collection will one day come to the museum.

Never mind that modern art isn’t always easy to appreciate. "Some things you like right away, but other things you don’t understand at all, so you really have to work at it," says Farris. "You have to find someone to explain it to you. Then you might end up loving the work."

San Diego Museum of Art

Donor: Mary Clark

Why do you support the San Diego Museum of Art?

"I know this institution from bottom to top, and I feel very close to it."

How long have you been a donor?

"Since the late 1940s."

Did you ever want to be an artist?

"No, but the painting lessons I took years ago gave me an even greater appreciation of artists."

What are some other institutions you sup­port? "San Diego Symphony, San Diego Opera and the San Diego Natural History Museum."

In September, San Diego Museum of Art donor Mary Clark was introduced to the institution’s new director, Roxana Velásquez Martínez del Campo. 

"You are the eighth director," Clark told Velásquez. "And you know what? I’ve met them all."

Exceptional loyalty and longtime service to the museum distinguish the 89-year-old resident of Mission Hills. Clark has been a valued volunteer on the board of trustees and countless committees during her decades of involvement with San Diego’s largest art museum.

"She’s an example to us all," says Velás­quez. "She believes in giving. And she knows about institutions. She knows that we need a lot of time and work."

Clark, a Georgia native who speaks with a subtle Southern lilt, is the widow of philanthropist and civic leader James Dallas Clark. The American Association of Museums gave the couple the Medal for Distinguished Philanthropy in 1998. Since the death of her husband five years ago, she has continued to work for good causes, including SDMA.

"Volunteer effort and passion are exceedingly important," says Clark, who is a past president of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Last year, she was honorary chair of the 28th "Art Alive," SDMA’s major fund-raiser, which attracts about 10,000 people each year to see lavish floral displays inspired by artworks. The event combines two of Clark’s big interests — art (she’s particularly partial to old masters) and flowers (she grows camellias and is adept at flower arranging).

San Diego Opera

Donor: Esther Burnham

Why do you support San Diego Opera?

"It’s the best-run organization with which I have ever been involved. And I love to help underwrite operas."

How long have you been a donor?

"Since 1974."

Did you ever want to be an opera singer?

"No. As a little girl, I was so shy I would only sing to myself."

What are some other institutions you support?

"The Neurosciences Institute, San Diego Symphony and La Jolla Playhouse."

When Esther Burnham found out that the San Diego Opera will honor her at its season-opening gala in January, she was reluctant to attract such attention.

"She protested," says Ann Campbell, the company’s director of strategic planning. "But we just wouldn’t let her say no."

If anyone deserves recognition, it’s Burnham. The 95-year-old Point Loma resident is a beloved figure who has demonstrated her devotion to the opera for more than 30 years and holds the prestigious title of "life director."

"I’m really very low-key," she says. "In the beginning, I used to make anonymous donations. But when I became opera president, people said, ‘You can’t do that. You have to let people know what you’re doing and draw them in.’ "

To that end, Burnham was the founding member and chairman of the Opera Stars campaign, which provides endowment funding and production support through estate planning. She’s in the $1 million-and-above funding category, called "Super Stars." And Ian Campbell, SDO’s general director and artistic director, calls Burnham "a true star — a shining light and inspiration."

He and wife Ann consider Burnham a good friend and treasure the many New Year’s Eves they and their two sons spent at her home. She served corned beef and cabbage, one of Ian’s favorite dishes.

Her taste in opera is far more adventurous. In 2013, Burham will be one of the largest contributors to the company’s first production of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s 1958 opera Murder in the Cathedral, based on T.S. Eliot’s play.

"I like to support what’s unknown, new-ish or even unpopular," she says. "As a company, we can’t be stale or stagnant."

The Old Globe

Donors: Karen and Donald Cohn

Why do you support The Old Globe?

"We both love theater — always have," says Donald Cohn. "And The Old Globe is the finest theatrical group on the West Coast."

How long have you been donors?

"Since 1990."

Did you ever want to be an actor?

"No, I’m not a performer," says Karen Cohn. "If I tried, I think my brain stem would freeze."

What are some other institutions you support?

"San Diego Opera, San Diego Symphony, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and The Bishop’s School."

Ten years ago, Karen and Donald Cohn’s teenaged son attended an Old Globe summer education program that brought together theater professionals and students from around the county.

"When you’re watching your own child enjoy theater on a day-to-day basis, you really see what The Old Globe offers," Karen says of Jonathan, who’s now 24 and a budding documentary filmmaker. "We became very interested in the educational aspects of the Globe and beefing up its funding."

The most visible result is the Karen & Donald Cohn Education Center, named for the La Jolla couple in recognition of their $5 million gift. The 6,500-square-foot facility opened last year as part of the Globe’s redesigned campus in Balboa Park. 

"When Karen married me, I told her that one day I’d put her name in lights," Donald says with a laugh.

Donald, 79, and Karen, 58, were major contributors to the Globe’s 75th anniversary campaign, along with such supporters as Conrad Prebys, Sheryl and Harvey White, Donald and Darlene Shiley and Kathryn Hattox. 

"Don and Karen have a great deal of positive energy," says Lou Spisto, the Globe’s executive producer. "They have supported my dreams and ambitions in a way that few volunteer leaders have."

Maybe it’s because they’re as passionate about the arts as they are about their Thoroughbred farm in Ramona. Karen completed two terms as Old Globe board president in the 1990s (and is the next president of San Diego Opera). Don, the founder and former CEO of DataQuick Information Systems, heads the Globe’s board and is particularly adept at fund-raising. What’s his secret?

"I truly believe in the cause," he says. "I don’t ask anybody to do anything I don’t do myself."

San Diego Symphony

Donors: Joan and Irwin Jacobs

Why do you support the San Diego Symphony?

"Because we like it very much," says Irwin. "It brings a great deal of joy."

How long have you been donors?

"Since the late 1960s."

Did you ever want to be a musician?

"No. I took trombone and clarinet lessons when I was young, but I didn’t carry that beyond high school."

What are some other institutions you support?

"La Jolla Music Society, La Jolla Playhouse, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Repertory Theatre and The New Children’s Museum."

Irwin Jacobs was just a boy when he and his mother took a trolley to a movie theater in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia, the animated film that features music by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.

"That’s my earliest memory of enjoying classical music," says Irwin, 77. "My mother claimed I liked the movie so much she had to take me four times."

Credit Fantasia with awakening a musical appreciation that ultimately led him to the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife, Joan, are the most prominent and generous benefactors of the orchestra that turns 100 on December 6.

"The symphony is a key cultural asset many people can enjoy," says the La Jolla resident, who is the cofounder and former CEO of Qualcomm. "One always hopes others will see the pleasure and satisfaction and that they will say: ‘Hey, maybe there is something to this’ and increase their donation level."

The Jacobses raised the bar with their $120 million pledge in 2002, a philanthropic game-changer that helped transform the once-troubled organization. Additional funding from the couple has been key to the modernization of historic Copley Symphony Hall. Joan continues to serve as chair of the San Diego Symphony Foundation board of directors. Concertmaster Jeff Thayer even plays a 1708 Stradivarius violin on loan from the Jacobses.

Music director and conductor Jahja Ling says "their utmost care and guidance" have enabled the San Diego Symphony to attain "artistic excellence, financial stability and the largest audience outreach in our orchestra’s history."

That’s a lot of high notes.

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