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SoCal billionaires plentiful, but most are not known for giving big sums to the arts*

March 16, 2010 |  4:12 pm

IrwinJoanJacobsTormey What do the arts need to thrive?

Well, apart from talented, creative and inspired artists, impresarios to give them a forum and arts-appreciators to enjoy the results, the arts mainly need rich people. Which brings us to Forbes magazine's annual listing of the world's billionaires, published last week.

By Culture Monster's count, 73 of the 1,011 souls that Forbes pegs as worth $1 billion to $53.5 billion (the estimated worth of Mexican magnate Carlos Slim, top dog on this year's list) have their main residences in California. Thirty-one live in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, and 42 in Silicon Valley and points north.

EliEdytheBroad The good news for the L.A. arts scene is that Eli Broad, by Forbes' reckoning, had a decent 2009; his net worth increased $500 million to $5.7 billion, good for No. 132 on the billionaires' hit parade. In philanthropic circles, who you know counts -- and Forbes notes that Broad and Slim already have partnered to fund medical research. So it's not inconceivable that Broad could drop Slim a line and shake loose the odd seven-figure sum on behalf of an  artistic enterprise.

Two other potentially helpful L.A.-associated billionaires are Roman Abromovich and Victor Pinchuk, both Russians. Abromovich is worth $11.2 billion, according to Forbes. His girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova, is an art lover who recently joined LACMA's board; Pinchuk, with wealth pegged at $3.1 billion, is on MOCA's board. [*Updated: an earlier version of this post mistakenly said that Dasha Zhukova had joined MOCA's board.]

Of the 31 Southern California-based billionaires, a decided minority are known to be big supporters of the arts.

DonaldBrenGauthier There's Broad, whose gifts have buoyed MOCA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Disney Hall construction, L.A. Opera's production of Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle and the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, not to mention the new museum he aims to build for his own art collection. 

-- Donald Bren, worth $12 billion at No. 45, making him the richest man in Southern California. Bren is a member of LACMA's board and a major supporter of UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts, which is named for his film-star stepmother.

--David Geffen, $5 billion, No. 154, who made major past gifts to MOCA and the Geffen Playhouse.

--Ronald Burkle, $3.2 billion, No. 297. He has given to MOCA and Disney Hall construction.

--Henry Samueli, $1.7 billion, No. 582 and a major donor to the Orange County Performing Arts Center and the defunct Opera Pacific.

--George Argyros, $1.5 billion, No. 655, with major gifts to South Coast Repertory.

--Edward Roski Jr., 1.5 billion, with a naming gift to USC's Roski School of Fine Arts.

-- Henry Nicholas III, $1.5 billion, gifts to South Coast Repertory and Orange County Performing Arts Center

-- Irwin Jacobs, 1.2 billion, No. 828 and an extensive dossier as San Diego's top arts donor, including a $100-million donation and bequest to the San Diego Symphony.

Being a creative artist or performer apparently is no reliable path to amassing a billion dollars. The only ones on the Forbes list are filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas ($3 billion each), actor-television host Oprah Winfrey ($2.4 billion), Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte ($2.5 billion) and "Harry Potter" novelist J.K. Rowling ($1 billion).

If you're not a billionaire, and are beginning to feel a bit insignificant in the face of mega-wealth, remember to think proportionately: When a billionaire donates $1 million, it's the equivalent of a millionaire giving $1,000; of a person with a net worth of $100,000 giving $100, and of someone who lives paycheck to paycheck giving anything at all.

-- Mike Boehm


The world's billionaires

Photos: Irwin and Joan Jacobs (top); Eli and Edythe Broad; Donald Bren. Credits: Los Angeles Times (Jacobs); Dan Steinberg/AP (Broads); Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times (Bren).