September 16, 2019

Glorya Kaufman: The philanthropist who loves dance

When Glorya Kaufman was a little girl, she had a dream.

“When I was 7 or 8 years old, I wanted to have an orphanage. So I think it’s always been in me to give and to care,” she said. Then she laughed and added, “That was probably from Annie Rooney,” referring to the popular comic strip about a young orphaned girl. 

These days, Kaufman is best known as Los Angeles’ biggest advocate for dance. From her eponymous dance series bringing large companies to the downton Music Center to the numerous arts and dance-education programs she bankrolls, her generosity has affected the city’s entire creative community. In 2012, she gave her largest gift to date to USC to establish a dance school, and though USC would not say how large the gift was, it is believed to have surpassed the $20 million she donated to the Music Center, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“I’ve always been struck by our city’s unique diversity and cultural heritage, and the city’s amazing renaissance is so exciting. And USC, to me, is the hub of the city’s rebirth,” Kaufman said in a recent interview with the Journal. “[In] the many years I have known L.A., it was always lacking dance.”

The USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance broke ground in the spring of 2014 and is set to accept its first undergraduate class in the fall of 2015. Auditions are currently being held. It’s the first endowment-funded school for USC in four decades, the last being the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which opened in 1973 with funding from Walter H. Annenberg.

An interdisciplinary approach is woven throughout the dance program. The school has established partnerships with the USC School of Cinematic Arts, the Thornton School of Music, and the Brain and Creativity Institute. “Everybody wants to collaborate with us,” Kaufman said. “It’s very exciting.”

Jodie Gates is the vice dean and director of the school, named on Kaufman’s recommendation. The two met through mutual friends in the dance world, and Kaufman was impressed with Gates’ experience as a ballerina, as a choreographer, as an associate professor of dance at UC Irvine and with her work as founding director of the Laguna Dance Festival in Southern California. Both say they developed a mutual appreciation through their shared passion for dance as a force for change.

“She’s really looking to not just develop and nurture young, talented dancers, but also innovators and entrepreneurs, leaders in the field, people who can make a difference in the creation of new art forms and new jobs,” Gates said of Kaufman. “So there’s a real desire to not just help individuals, but to help individuals help the community.”

While Kaufman does not ask for anonymity for her gifts, she has remained secretive about how much she donated to USC and said she does not plan to reveal the amount.

“Say that you walked into the room and you had a beautiful Ralph Lauren suit on,” Kaufman said. “And instead of saying, ‘You know, you really look terrific,’ I’d say, ‘How much did you pay for your suit?’ So many people, all they do is talk about the money. And that’s not why I’m doing this. I’m doing it because it’s a passion and it will somehow better the world.”

Born Glorya Pinkis in Detroit, her mother was a seamstress and her father a production manager for Automotive News. Kaufman recalls her father dancing to records and holding her up while she stood on his toes. She loved to dance with friends but never pursued it professionally.

While still in Detroit, she married Donald Bruce Kaufman, a homebuilder and partner with Eli Broad, another well-known L.A. philanthropist, in founding Fortune 500 company Kaufman & Broad, later KB Homes. The couple had four children and moved to Phoenix before settling in Los Angeles, where their fortune grew and they became among the city’s top donors. Kaufman only recently moved from a spacious Brentwood ranch house to a more modest $18.2 million Italian villa-style home in Beverly Hills.

It’s hard to keep track of all the groups Kaufman either gives money to or sits on the boards of or helped create. Even Kaufman seems to have a hard time remembering them all. She said her philanthropic drive comes from her Jewish heritage.

“We grew up with these little boxes that they call tzedakah [boxes], and if we had a nickel or a dime or a quarter, we’d always put a couple pennies in, and we knew it would go to people who needed it more than us,” she said.

In 2011, Kaufman combined her religious background and passion for dance by helping to create “Dancing With the Rabbis” at American Jewish University, a competition in which five rabbis strutted their stuff on stage, each one paired with a professional dancer, for charity. 

When Kaufman was younger and raising her children, dance and charity work were less important to her. “I didn’t have a lot of time to be philosophical,” she said. “I just took care of my family.” The tragic deaths of her husband and son-in-law in a plane crash in 1983 sharpened her focus toward helping others, she said. Kaufman described it as a traumatic period in her life.

“It was either you sink or swim, at that time,” she said. “I had to grow up. That’s when I really changed to a different person, because I started thinking about other situations besides my own, because others were even worse.”

The Glorya Kaufman Dance Foundation has given to dance institutions outside Los Angeles as well, including $6 million to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and $3.5 million to the Juilliard School to fund the new Glorya Kaufman Dance Studio, both in New York.

The foundation also gives to a youth dance education program called the Dizzy Feet Foundation and helped create a dance program for Covenant House California, a homeless-youth outreach project. In 2006, Kaufman donated $1 million to Inner-City Arts, a school on Skid Row, for an arts education partnership with the L.A. Unified School District. The money went to create the Kaufman Dance Academy, which gives dance instruction to kindergarten students through 12th-graders in its own, independent dance studio. “We teach at least 1,000 students each year,” said Bob Smiland, president and CEO of Inner-City Arts.

“Her touch is covering many parts of the city, which is great,” Smiland said. “She’s keeping dance alive in the creative capital of the world.”

Kaufman’s gift of $20 million to the Music Center to establish the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance series has successfully brought dozens of world-class dance groups to L.A., among them American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet. The program, first known as Dance at the Music Center, got its start in 2003 but was renamed for Kaufman when she made the huge gift to the endowment at a time when the recession was forcing most arts institutions around the world to cut their budgets deeply. “At the time, we were all experiencing the new financial realities,” said Renae Williams Niles, vice president of programming at the Music Center and curator of the dance series. “Glorya’s gift would have been significant at any time, but especially in 2009.”

The money is distributed on an annual basis and covers about half of what the Music Center needs to fundraise. “It gives us some level of sustainability and security,” Niles said. “And it allows me on behalf of the Music Center to make long-term commitments, to bring certain masterpieces and world-renowned companies, and it’s allowed us to become a major leader in presenting dance in the entire U.S.”

The dance companies’ residencies extend beyond the stage: A partnership between the Music Center and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater placed dancers in schools throughout L.A. County for two weeks of workshops. And the relatively new company, L.A. Dance Project, under the artistic direction of acclaimed choreographer Benjamin Millepied, had its inaugural performance in 2012 as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center.

Kaufman has also given to medical causes, from the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research to the UCLA Mobile Eye Clinic, which provides eye exams to preschoolers. She also established the Cedars-Sinai/USC Glorya Kaufman Dance Medicine Center, the first of its kind in L.A., which conducts research and offers care specifically designed for professional and recreational dancers. Her foundation even rebuilt a waiting room for patients at St. John’s Health Center after it was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Kaufman also donated $18 million to renovate the dance building at UCLA after it suffered earthquake damage, which led the school to rename the building Glorya Kaufman Hall. Kaufman, however, said she’s “disappointed” that her gift never led to a dedicated dance school at UCLA.

These days, Kaufman is focused mostly on preparing for the inaugural class of undergraduate dancers at USC. She’s even picking out the colors to paint the inside of the brand-new Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center, just as she did at UCLA and for the Donald Bruce Kaufman branch library in Brentwood. 

Part of her contribution to USC includes scholarships for students. In a sense, she sees it all as the fulfillment of her childhood dream.

“I remember thinking, ‘One day I will have an orphanage.’ And in a way, I think that happened, in a different kind of way,” she said.