In the living room of her spacious Fifth Avenue apartment, Laurie M. Tisch is warm, engaged, and refreshingly down-to-earth.
On the walls are colorful selections from her collection of American works of art: Edward Hopper, Milton Avery, Georgia O’Keeffe. An Alexander Calder mobile hangs above the coffee table. Tall windows offer a grand view of Central Park. Yet Tisch’s view goes far beyond that.
While her family is known as long-standing patrons of New York City, the dynamic 67-year-old philanthropic leader has forged her own distinct path, through a passionate commitment to creating opportunities for all residents—embracing Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and neighborhoods throughout New York, each with a diverse identity.
Indeed, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, which she launched in 2008, will close 2018 by eclipsing $100M in donations to causes dedicated to improving access for all New Yorkers.
“It’s pretty simple, really,” says Tisch. “I asked myself, ‘Why should someone’s zip code or the circumstances of their birth dictate the quality of their life or their health?’ I grew up without having to worry about the basics, but a lot of people in New York, and in so many other places, lack simple things like access to healthy food, a good education, and the arts.”
But Tisch never wanted just to write a check. “I feel most connected to the causes I support when I’m on site, and involved in a hands-on way,” she explains. “Getting out there is key.”
Through the Illumination Fund, Tisch has partnered with many city agencies—the Department of Public Health, Health and Hospitals Corporation, and the Department of Education—and with these public-private partnerships she has helped advance important equity issues for the entire city.
In honor of her tremendous impact, Tisch was presented in December with a key to the city by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray to recognize her considerable civic activities at a ceremony benefiting the Gracie Mansion Conservancy. It is her second such distinction; she received her first key after the New York Giants—which her family co-owns with the Mara family—won Super Bowl XLII in 2008.
Fulfilling the American Dream
Despite her deep family and philanthropic ties to New York City, Tisch was born in New Jersey and didn’t make Manhattan her home until she had already established herself out West. Her father, Preston Robert “Bob” Tisch, the son of Russian immigrants, was born in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. Bob and his older brother, Larry, began investing in hotel properties together in New Jersey and New York in the late 1940s. By 1959, their hotel venture had become an empire, and the brothers purchased Loews Corporation, one of the largest movie theater chains at the time, which they transformed into a major international holding company.
Bob met his future wife, Joan Hyman, while both were students at the University of Michigan. They married and started a family in Margate, New Jersey. The family, including Tisch’s older brother, Steven, and younger brother, Jonathan, relocated to Miami and then Westchester, an hour north of New York City.
Bob and Joan had their individual and collective ways of giving back. The City of New York benefited on many fronts from the couple’s significant financial support of universities, medical institutions, museums, and individual communities in the city and beyond. Joan was an early supporter of AIDS awareness and active in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization. Bob’s final charitable civic gesture before his death in 2005 was the completion of 43 public high school sports fields in neighborhoods that were in dire need of facility improvements or previously had no field at all.
Tisch came of age in the early 1970s, graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in education. As a passionate vessel of activism looking for direction, she was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, but wanted to do something more impactful (and less demonstrative) than marching in the streets. She applied to Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), essentially a domestic version of the Peace Corps.
“I was accepted into a program in the Southwest because I spoke Spanish,” Tisch recalls. “I decided to put it off for a year to be a ski bum, which is kind of strange because I had only been skiing about five times,” she says with a laugh.
From Park City to Central Park
Tisch went to Park City, Utah, long before Robert Redford put the city on the map with the Sundance Film Festival. Back then, Park City was just a sleepy little ski village. She jokes that the town was so nondescript, her parents weren’t quite sure whether she was in Idaho, Wyoming, or Utah—just that she was “out West somewhere.”
She ended up staying in Utah for four years, teaching Spanish. While still in her mid-20s, Tisch was asked to sit on the founding board of Park City’s Kimball Art Center. Thus began a gradual but steady immersion into the world of fine art.
“My mother had some art, but we didn’t really talk about it,” says Tisch, whose mixed feelings about collecting are rooted in a distaste for pretension. “I think of it as stuff. Beautiful, wonderful, but just stuff,” she says of the works she has collected over the ensuing decades.
Manhattan beckoned, and Tisch returned East, spending a couple of summers doing public relations at Loews. She excelled, but didn’t see the family business as her calling. Besides, with two brothers and four male cousins locking in their own career aspirations, the field was crowded.
Finding Artful Purpose
Having returned to her roots, she was at a crossroads. “I got married, had a baby within the year, and I didn’t know what to do,” Tisch recalls. “I was having lunch with some peers of my parents, and they suggested the League of Women Voters.” Nails on a chalkboard would have gotten a better reaction. “I said, ‘What else have you got?’”
One told Tisch about a small institution where her daughter, who had cognitive problems, was working. It was called Manhattan Laboratory. Founded by Bette Korman, it would eventually become Children’s Museum of Manhattan. During the 1970s, when arts programs were being dropped from public schools due to budgetary constraints, Korman would deliver shopping bags full of supplies for arts activities. Her good deeds did not go unnoticed, and she got her first grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which allowed her to open the museum.
Tisch was drawn to her energy and her ability to create opportunity from adversity. “I thought she was so cool. I had never met anyone like her,” says Tisch, who began making suggestions and sharing ideas to help shape Korman’s vision. With plenty of friends with young children and the means to help grow interest, Tisch made connections and things moved forward quickly.
More than three decades later, Tisch takes her grandchildren to the Children’s Museum every week. Soon, the museum will have a new home that will nearly double its size to 70,000 square feet. In January 2018, the museum announced it had acquired the former First Church of Christ, Scientist building at 96th Street and Central Park West. A target date of 2021 is set for the move.
A Beacon for Opportunity
In 2007, Tisch wanted to established a fund through which she could improve access and opportunity for all New Yorkers. Her mission: to support innovative approaches to education, immersion in the arts, healthy food options, and initiatives that championed social justice.
She liked the idea of illumination, shining light on important issues, but was hesitant to attach her name to it. Her daughter Emily persuaded her to go with the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. “She said, ‘Mom, you’ve fought so hard for your identity. Why would you give it up now?’” Tisch recalls.
One of the early and enduring success stories has been the Green Cart Initiative. Seeded in spring 2008, the Green Carts are a public/private partnership between the Illumination Fund and the City of New York to improve health outcomes and provide job opportunities by bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to communities that previously had limited or nonexistent neighborhood options. Not only have the carts helped fill the gaps in so called “food deserts,” they have created hundreds of jobs and even influenced other neighborhood stores to carry more fresh produce. Tisch calls Green Carts “an exciting entrepreneurial model” that provides a valuable service to families.
While many nonprofit foundations are launched in the name of a flagship cause, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund has never held one specific goal as its mission. In the beginning, Tisch says, “It was a little bit frustrating and confusing that I didn’t have a single focus. The more I talked to Melissa Berman [at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors] and the staff I had at the time, I realized that the glue that held it all together was social justice.” In other words, working toward a level playing field for all was core to Tisch’s philanthropic philosophy.
In July 2018, the Illumination Fund announced a new $10M Arts in Health initiative focused on mental illness stigma, trauma, and aging-related diseases. Tisch was moved to take up these health issues after witnessing her mother’s battle with dementia near the end of her life.
Tisch recalls organizing a 90th birthday party, featuring a Sinatra impersonator. for her mother, who was a huge Frank Sinatra fan. The entire extended family attended, and her mother had the time of her life, singing along with many of the songs. The next day, she had no recollection of the party. Astounded that such heartwarming events from just a few hours before could vanish into the ether, Tisch was once again moved to action.
The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund is currently underwriting a research study to understand more thoroughly how music—in all its forms, genres, and implementations—can affect the brain.
“I’ve wanted to do something—I didn’t know what—about how the arts are used in mental health, aging, and dementia,” she says, noting that the cause is also connected to her social justice platform, as the outcomes could help improve services for seniors, veterans, and many others, whatever their socioeconomic circumstances.
When Joan Tisch passed away in November 2017, Laurie and her two brothers decided to sell the prestigious Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Collection, one of the finest representations of modern American masters. Sold at auction by Christie’s New York in May 2018, the lot featured works by Picasso, de Kooning, Giacometti, Miró, Léger, and raised more than $66M for Tisch family foundations, further expanding opportunities for the Illumination Fund to make an impact—with a ripple effect.
Lighting the Way
Now entering a second decade of leading her eponymous Illumination Fund, name recognition remains a remote concern for Tisch. She is co-chair of the Board of Trustees at the Whitney Museum of American Art and founded the Laurie M. Tisch Education Center at the Whitney, the facility’s first dedicated space for education.
She is also vice chair of the Board of Trustees at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and a trustee of the Aspen Institute, while remaining co-owner and member of the Board of Directors for the New York Giants.
While she treasures her family history, Tisch has forged an independent identity and has set her own giving priorities. “I have my own thing, the foundation, and I run it as a business,” she says. “Hopefully I’ve done good, lasting work with the great privilege that I’ve had.”
HEALTH THROUGH THE ARTS
A new initiative from the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund is helping to fill in gaps in healing
Why should people’s income and zip code determine their access to the arts and to programs that can improve their lives? If music can spark memory in those with dementia, and dance can help people with Parkinson’s disease, why not make those tools available to patients and caregivers? If engagement in the arts can help heal veterans with PTSD and survivors of domestic violence and other trauma as well as foster healthier, more vibrant communities, how can we make it easier to participate? These are questions that resounded for Laurie M. Tisch when she launched the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund Arts in Health Initiative.
In April 2018, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund launched a $10-million-dollar, multi-year initiative to support organizations working on health issues that impact New York communities and utilize the arts as a tool for healing and for building understanding, with a special emphasis on improving access and overcoming disparities. Indeed, a recent Harris Poll revealed that Americans overwhelmingly believe the arts are important tools in health:
81% of American surveyed believe that the arts can overcome mental health stigma;
82% of Americans surveyed believe that the arts can benefit people with age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementias;
87% of Americans surveyed believe that the arts can help people overcome a traumatic event.
The intiative highlights the value of multiple artistic disciplines, including visual art, dance, music, theater, and film, and focuses on three main issues: mental health stigma, trauma, and aging-related diseases. Grantee partners in 2018 included:
The Role of the Arts in Addressing Mental Health stigma:
The Changing Minds Young Filmmakers Competition, a program of Community Access, is an online film submission competition that uses film as a medium to combat mental health stigma among youth;
The New York City Mural Arts Project, a program of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene with the Fund for Public Health, uses large-scale community mural-making to spark dialogue about mental health in communities and to challenge stereotypes and stigma;
Fountain House Gallery, a program of Fountain House, provides an environment for artists living and working with mental illness to pursue their creative visions and to challenge the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
The Role of the Arts in Addressing Trauma:
The Art Therapy Project is the only non-profit in New York dedicated solely to providing guided art therapy to survivors of trauma of every age, using the creative process to those seeking hope and support;
Gibney Community Action uses dance and movement workshops as a vehicle to help survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
The Role of the Arts in Aging-Related Diseases:
The Creative Center at University Settlement uses arts participation to promote creative aging and as an outlet for patients and survivors of cancer and other serious diseases;
Dance for PD (the Mark Morris Dance Group) provides dance and movement workshops for people with Parkinson’s Disease;
Art and Minds creates museum-based workshops for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, along with their caregivers
The Louis Armstrong Center for Music Therapy / Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai is conducting a neuroscience-based multisite investigation of the benefits of music therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.