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Paradise Lost? The Bittersweet Legacy of the Buck Trust
The first of two articles on the controversial relationship of the Buck Trust with Marin County’s arts scene, focusing on live theater as a representative example. This installment looks at the historical record. A second article examines possible future options for Buck Trust funders and potential grant recipients. Charles is the Pacific Sun’s theater critic.
When Beryl Hamilton Buck died in 1975, very few outside her inner circle took notice. She wasn’t a public figure hereabouts. No scandals. No attention getting pronouncements about the need for 50 feet high privacy hedges. Just another average millionaire widow living quietly next door to her close friend, legal advisor and confidante, attorney John Elliot Cook, in a place that has more than its share of such people–the leafy town of Ross. Yet, her death set in motion a chain of events that have had a profound effect on life in Marin and the philanthropic world in general. Now, 24 years later, it appears that yet another link—which ought to be controversial, but isn’t–is about to be added.
The story begins with the passing of Mrs. Buck’s husband, Leonard, in 1953. Buck was head of the family controlled Belridge Oil Company, which owned valuable assets in the southern San Joaquin Valley. These were left to Beryl, his surviving spouse, who in turn surprised everyone except her most intimate advisors by stipulating in her will (written with Cook’s help) that the the Belridge holdings (then valued at about $11.5 million) should be transferred to the San Francisco Foundation, an organization both she and Cook trusted, to be used for the exclusive benefit of the residents of the place she loved–Marin County.
If Mrs. Buck lived fairly anonymously, her death—and what came with it–caught people’s attention. With oil prices rising steadily, it was generally assumed that the Belridge shares would also rise, leading eventually to a buyout by one of the industry giants that would be willing to pay a nice premium to gain control of its substantial proven reserves—which is precisely what happened in the 1979 acquisition by Shell. Today, due to prudent investing of the proceeds and the luck of the market, the Buck Trust’s core value stands at more than $1 billion.
In the early years, this unexpected windfall was greeted with jubilation throughout Marin’s relatively small assembly of non-profits. Hard working but chronically poor (personally and organizationally) administrators and their staffs looked at each other in disbelief as they realized what the impact of their good fortune might be. Those laboring in the human needs sector (health, aging, affordable housing, economic and social disparities, education, etc.) were overjoyed that Mrs. Buck’s will explicitly designated them top priorities. At the same time, arts and environmental groups took comfort in the fact that she also recognized the importance of their activities by directing that Trust funds be used to strengthen community ties and improve the County’s “quality of life,” an area in which the arts play an especially vital role.
For a while it looked like the hopes of all the factions would be realized, but today–27 years later— multiple interviews with theater people and others involved in Marin’s cultural environment reveal a very different attitude. Facing the reality that the Trust’s funding, now administered by the Marin Community Foundation (MCF), is currently focused almost entirely on the human needs sector, a few remain optimistic that the pendulum will eventually swing back. Some are angry. Others report that they have tried to adapt to the requirement that their grant requests connect with a social or educational purpose
The great majority, however (who. for obvious reasons, asked that their names not be used) replied with a mixture of skepticism, disappointment and a growing apprehension about the difficulties that lie ahead as expenses rise and income can’t keep up Ivan Poutiatine, an influential founding board member and donor to Marin Theatre Company, is typical of these when he told me, “I question whether this is what Mrs. Buck intended. She said her goal was a healthy community. The arts are part of that and quality takes money. You can’t buy culture on the cheap.”
So, two different philanthropic philosophies are in play, but one—what we may call the social justice approach—has assumed complete dominance over the major local source of non-profit funding. How did we get to this point? Obvious clues can be found in the historical record.
THE GOLDEN AGE, 1981-1988
Although residents tended to look to San Francisco for their “serious” cultural experiences when the San Francisco Foundation (SFF) took over as BuckTrust administrator in 1981, Marin County wasn’t exactly a suburban wasteland. With apologies to any groups I may inadvertently overlook, performing arts resources included a symphony orchestra, a ballet school, an opera company, a light opera company that presented popular Broadway musicals and the multi-use Dance Palace in West Marin. On the theatrical side were two venerable community theaters (Novato and Ross Valley), a semi-professional Mill Valley Center for the Arts (MVCPA), and the annual Mountain Play in the amphitheater on Mt. Tam. In addition, there was a pair of startups whose mission was to develop and produce new work: Sausalito’s experimental Snake Theatre and San Rafael’s more traditional Theater Artists of Marin.
Faced with the task of suddenly having to disburse 16-18% of Buck Trust dollars (its normal budget allocation for arts and culture) to this lightly populated county while maintaining demanding quality standards, SFF set aside a large chunk for two major projects: the purchase and re-development of a theater building for MVCPA (re-christened the Marin Theatre Company in 1984) on Miller Avenue, and a plan for an expanded Mill Valley Film Festival that included the re-model of a dilapidated old art deco one-screen movie house on Fourth St., San Rafael, now known as the Rafael Theatre. What remained in the funding pot was distributed in generous grants to companies that met the Foundation’s expansive criteria, allowing Marin to briefly become one of the Bay Area’s most exciting places for both performing artists and audiences.
As might be expected, this wide-ranging largesse drew criticism, particularly from County government and some competing non-profits, because it diverted funds from the human needs sector which was feeling the financial pinch of Proposition 13 tax revenue cutbacks. To its credit, SFF stuck to its funding priorities. According to Douglas Ferguson (a Marin attorney renowned for his ability to bring together local funders and arts organizations needing help), when he raised the issue with John Kreidler, then SFF’s program officer for arts and culture, Kreidler smiled and said, “I’m happy to see some of our resources going to the promotion of joy, rather than just the relief of suffering.”
By 1984, however, SFF was ready to throw in the towel. Complaining that it was impossible to spend all the Buck money locally and maintain standards, the Foundation filed a lawsuit in Marin Superior Court seeking to break Mrs. Buck’s instruction that funding be restricted to persons and agencies within county borders.
Space limitations don’t permit any detailed description of the colorful proceedings that for two years attracted national attention to a trial that, because of its possible impact on the sanctity of donor wishes, came to be known as the “Super Bowl of Probate.” Suffice it to say that the resistance to SFF’s power grab brought together just about everyone who had a stake in the Buck Trust’s future. I myself became an unofficial representative of the arts community and consulted with Marin’s lead attorney, County Counsel Doug Maloney, on several occasions. At no time was there any talk of radically changing the funding priorities set by SFF.
Yet, change they did.
REVOLUTION FROM WITHIN
On August 15, 1986, Superior Court Judge Homer B. Thompson signed his order denying SFF’s petition to modify the geographic restriction for Buck Trust grantees. During the next couple of years, attention given to the transfer of the Trust’s administration to a newly organized Marin Community Foundation (MCF) overshadowed other issues, allowing SFF allocation policies to more or less remain in place. Nevertheless, there were hints of what was to come in the increasingly demanding suggestions from members of the County Board of Supervisors, that Trust funds be used to meet urgent social justice needs instead of being distributed to independent sectors with separate agendas (e.g. Arts and Culture) as had been the case since the Trust began operations.
The road that led to the current unbalanced situation has had these significant milestones:
Control of MCF’s governance.
Over the past two decades, political pressures from Supervisors and County staff, backed by leaders of certain (not all) social justice-oriented non-profits, developers of affordable housing, some individual “progressives” (especially New Urbanism backers) and sections of the local media, have gradually installed supporters of a social justice agenda throughout MCF’s organizational framework. Foundation presidents who pushed back were ousted or persuaded they would be better off elsewhere. MCF’s Board of Trustees—a nine member body, two of whose members are directly appointed by the Supervisors and another (an advocate for the poor) is indirectly related—has been systematically shaped to reflect the desired goal; currently composed of two M.D.s and individuals with education, health services, and financial backgrounds, there is not a single representative of either Arts and Culture or the environmental community. The capstone of this pyramid was the 1998 selection of Dr. Thomas Peters, for seven years had been director of the County’s Department of Health and Human Services, as Foundation president, a position he still holds.
Absence of public consultation and oversight.
The developments described above did not take place surreptitiously though some deliberate hidden conspiracy. They were right out there in the open and might have provoked controversy…except that nobody noticed. Or, if they did, as in the case of arts organizations that were denied funding, they were either too intimidated, too busy trying to survive, or too disorganized to mount meaningful resistance. The sole oversight was provided by a Court-appointed Special Master, an office lately occupied by retired judge Gary E Strankman, who, according to remarks made when the position (at his suggestion) was recently abolished, found nothing to complain about or bring to public attention.
MCF itself has contributed to the information vacuum in various ways. It moved its conveniently located Larkspur Landing headquarters to the far reaches of Hamilton Landing (Novato). Annual community meetings that, in the Trust’s early days, were used to gather community input on funding priorities, have been discontinued, as has newspaper publishing of recipients’ names and grant amounts. In another significant action, MCF caused the demise of the Marin Arts Council—an agency it had helped create to foster a sense of community among arts groups—by terminating its financial support in 2010, thus leaving member non-profits powerless to jointly lobby for protection of their interests.
These developments, building on Dr. Peters’ appointment to the presidency, culminated in a Five Year Strategic Plan (2009) that commits most of Buck Trust resources to social justice issues. It appears, at least for now, that the revolution is complete.
As the fifth year of MCF’s Strategic Plan nears (a one year extension has already been approved), there emerges a troubling picture of a philanthropic organization that once had a robust public presence and a wide-ranging impact in a variety of fields that together form the tapestry of life in Marin County. Now, MCF, anointed guardian of the Buck Trust, seems more a shadowy presence that professes communitarian goals, but does its best to avoid involvement with the very community it serves.
Lately, I’ve heard rumblings in some quarters about a desire to sue the Foundation’s officers for disregarding Mrs. Buck’s instructions. My advice would be to forget it. Dr. Peters is right when he tells me that the Trustees have absolute legal authority to choose where to spend the Trust’s money. Nor should there be any reluctance to acknowledge that the effort to mitigate education and income disparities, problems of aging, homelessness, and a myriad other ills is a worthy cause.
But is that all it takes to promote a healthy, culturally vibrant community? How can MCF forge a closer relationship with the people whose welfare it is pledged to promote? What specific non-social justice projects would seem to qualify for urgent Buck Trust consideration? Those are some of the questions that will be addressed in the second installment, along with a presentation of the Foundation’s point of view on the issues raised here, as expressed in a series of interviews with its president, Tom Peters.
Charles can be reached at email@example.com
Reblogged this on Rosamond Press and commented:
New Atland will rise like a Phoenix Bird from the ashes. The Wendlings will wing home to the New Atlantis and Amersterdam. https://rosamondpress.com/2017/08/03/the-new-wendling-colony/