Queen of Arts

Some arts patrons wear their wealth. Katherine Herberger gives it -- by the millions. In the 50-some years since she and her late husband, Robert, came to Phoenix from Minnesota, she and her family have given mint sums to Valley schools, hospitals and museums. She has donated to performing arts groups, theaters, social causes and charities too numerous and wordy to mention. Last year, her patronage included a headline-making gift of $12 million to Arizona State University's College of Fine Arts.

Yet sitting serenely in the spacious living room of her Paradise Valley home, she's preparing to give something a tad more liquid than cash: a few ounces of her own blood. It's more of a test than a donation.

"One of those things that comes with being my age," she sighs.

A friendly woman who regularly does this particular deed half kneels in front of Herberger's chair, opens a small box of medical tools and warns her softly of what's to come. "Here's the stick."

Even at a moment like this, Herberger, whom just about everyone calls "Kax," is willing to share.

Leaning slightly forward in her chair, she says wryly, "Would you like her to take your blood, too? She's really very good."

At 89, Herberger is among a fading generation of cornerstone philanthropists who have built and sustained cultural institutions all over the Valley. Their money has fed the growth of the Heard Museum, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Without it, the Phoenix Symphony, Arizona Theater Company, Actor's Theatre of Phoenix, Ballet Arizona and the Arizona Opera would likely be gone.

Some of their contributions make the headlines. But most simply have been the quiet force of Valley cultural life.

Everett King has been a stalwart of the Arizona Theater Company. Carol Whiteman, who helped to save Ballet Arizona last year with a gift of $100,000, has also supported the symphony and numerous arts groups.

Virginia Ullman's name and money have touched just about every cultural institution. Two weeks ago, thanks to $1 million from her, the Phoenix Art Museum opened a gallery dedicated to the work of the late Scottsdale painter Philip Curtis. Ullman made a similar gift for another gallery at the Heard Museum several years ago. Jonathan and Maxine Marshall have done the same for the Phoenix Art Museum and others.

These patrons represent an era that embraced the central role of art in shaping civilization.

But that era may be passing. Some key benefactors have already died. Thelma Kieckhefer, a key supporter of PAM, passed away in 1993. Virginia Piper, who invested heavily at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, went in 1999.

Kieckhefer and Piper's monies have since morphed into private philanthropic foundations. But foundations, like other formal funding agencies, lack the individual passion and flexibility to decide on the spot to save a ballet, a symphony or a theater company.

In older American cities, where multigenerational wealth assures the perpetuation of cultural giving, the passing of a generation wouldn't cause much concern. But in Phoenix, where transience and the lack of cultural traditions have been the norm, the impending loss of cornerstone patrons is causing arts leaders to wonder: Who's going to replace them?

That question has become more pressing in recent years as a spate of corporate buyouts and consolidations has depleted the ranks of culture-minded business leaders, and a boom in the construction of cultural facilities has heightened the need for philanthropic cash ("Edifice Complex," March 1).

"It's a real heads-up time," says Myra Millinger, associate director of the Flinn Foundation, which has been funding culture here since the 1980s. "People should understand that patronage is fundamental."

"There are some very wealthy people here," she says. "But they're here two months of the year. And this may be one of three homes. They haven't been like the Herbergers of the community, who've been here for years."

That has long been Phoenix's cultural truth.

Officials at local museums and performing arts organizations have made a habit of smiling while saying they don't mind sharing patrons with institutions in Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, New York and other snowbird nesting areas.

But the frowning fact is that Phoenix's allotment has rarely equaled -- either in quality or quantity -- the gifts that part-timers have divided between institutions here and whatever city they call "back home."

The inequity has left many local arts institutions and organizations strapped for the cash and cachet they need both for stability and for growth.

That's evident enough, says Diane Cummings Halle, a major contributor to the Phoenix Art Museum, when one compares the cultural offerings of Phoenix, the nation's sixth largest city, with those available in most of the other top 15.

"We are not the sixth largest city in terms of culture, transportation or any of the above," she says. "We're way down the ladder."

Over the years, the museum has struggled to attract the money and gifts of art to build a collection worth returning to again and again.

The Phoenix Symphony and Ballet Arizona have repeatedly been in and out of fiscal troubles, as has just about every other performing arts organization in town. They haven't received the level of investment -- hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and art -- that older cities have heaped on similar arts organizations.

"I wouldn't say this kind of patronage lives exclusively through families," says Millinger. "But the money reflects the involvement of people who've remained committed. People stayed there long enough to become loyal and to have their cultural leaders become known. Then new leaders grew up and took their place. There's been no such natural progression here."

And there's an increasing sense that many of the rich who roost in the foothills of north Scottsdale and Phoenix have gone there to hide.

"That wealth is extensive," says Millinger. "It's up beyond Troon. But I don't know how much of it is available to anybody in the arts. If those people don't start to come forward, it's going to be extremely difficult for arts organizations."

A week before their spring finale, the dancers of the Ballet Arizona company move through their routines with the sweat-glossed strength and efficiency of professional athletes. The gymlike setting of their cramped studio in a building behind a strip mall in central Phoenix is a world away from the elegant illusions of flight that their performance will achieve onstage.

The hallways outside the main practice room double as a lunch room and stretching area. Socks and other clothing are clumped along the room's edges. The air at times is locker-room muggy, occasionally wafting the smell of genuine blue-collar labor.

Even with such rudimentary facilities, the company's costs are substantial. Toe shoes ($50,000 a year), classical tutus (about $2,500 each) and dancers (average pay $22,000) account for the most visible expenses. But the company's $2.6 million budget is packed with grittier essentials that rarely cross the public's mind -- $5,000 to truck the Nutcracker sets each year from storage to Symphony Hall, $12,000 to $18,000 for the rubbery black plastic flooring the dancers practice on, and up to $60,000 per ballet in royalties and fees for choreographers and music.

"People think they're supporting the ballet or opera by just buying tickets," says Howard Hirsch, a patron who last year formed the Five Arts Circle, a private group that contributed $25,000 to the ballet and four other Valley arts organizations. "But that doesn't even begin to cover the waterfront. They might pay for half the cost of the production."

The healthiest national ballet companies might make about 70 percent of these costs through ticket sales and other earnings. Many operate at 60 percent.

That scenario is similar for other performing arts groups. The Phoenix Symphony, for instance, brings in only 40 percent of its budget from ticket sales.

Like the symphony, the ballet and other nonprofit arts groups have to raise the remainder through donations from governmental, corporate, foundation and individual sources.

"People always think it's the corporations who give the rest of the money," says Sherry New, executive director of Ballet Arizona, "but that's never been the case. It's individuals."

Corporate gifts are very visible. Most are part of company marketing and public relations campaigns. Individuals are a good deal quieter. Many want no recognition at all. Yet their role in American culture and life is profound. Individual donors account for more than 75 percent of all philanthropic gifts in the United States. For arts organizations, that portion can be as great as 90 percent, with the bulk coming from just a handful of major donors.

The difficulty of finding that elite crowd is apparent in the playbills and programs accompanying local theater, ballet and symphony performances. They show plenty of contributors in the $1,500 range, some at $5,000, but very few contributing more than that.

The bumper sticker of fund raising may say: "No gift is too small." But the reality of running a donation-dependent arts organization is that the more checks it has to chase, the more time it has to spend shaking a tin cup rather than building its artistic product.

Cultural leaders point out that the impact of major individual donations -- both of art and money -- extends far beyond the better works they add to museum collections or the financial security they put in the bank. They provide credibility and sizzle that organizations can't get in any other way.

"They validate you," says Robert Wills, dean of Arizona State University's College of Fine Arts. "They mean that somebody thinks enough of you and the quality of what's going on to make that kind of investment."

And they often lead to more gifts.

Several weeks ago, on the heels of the Herberger donation, ASU's College of Fine Arts revealed another multimillion-dollar private donation of land and money, to build and operate an art center in northeast Phoenix.

A similar snowballing occurred last September, when patrons pulled Ballet Arizona from its most recent financial crisis. Before Carol Whiteman donated $100,000 to the company, Herberger had given $60,000. Those donations leveraged others.

With a budget gap of about $350,000, and no prospect of cash arriving before the Nutcracker was slated to began its run a few months later, the 15-year-old Ballet Arizona was on the verge of closing its doors.

The flood of private support prevented that. It also helped the company to secure a three-year, $398,000 grant from the Flinn Foundation and vital business training from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Arizona Community Foundation.

"I hadn't been involved in the ballet for some time," says Whiteman.

But the thought of losing it aroused a number of anchoring memories in her life.

"When people talk about ballet, theater and the symphony," she says, "they often talk about high art and sniff at it. But it's as rewarding as religion in some ways. It opens doors you may be grateful for later in life."

She says her father, Paul Nickerson, was crazy about ballet.

"He was a poet, an English professor who taught at a college in Montclair, New Jersey. He used to take me into New York to see ballet. It was just something we did. I was fortunate, really, because dance, music and poetry weren't any kind of unusual epiphany. They were simply a part of living."

She married a doctor and lived for a period in Oklahoma City where she was involved with the arts. She moved to Tucson in the 1960s and eventually became managing director of the Arizona Theater Company. She sat in on early discussions about consolidating the marginal dance companies operating in Tucson and Phoenix into one corps.

"But my interest really waned," she says. "When I would go on rare occasions, it was like the theater was in the early days. You'd have some good principal actors or dancers and then there'd be some spear-holder that would come out and say something like, 'The king is waiting for you,' and the whole thing would go down the tubes. It was the same thing with the dancers."

Over the years, she says, the caliber of Ballet Arizona has risen steadily, first under choreographer Michael Uthoff, and more recently under Ib Andersen.

News of the ballet's financial woes reached her the same way it reached just about everyone else.

"I think I read in the paper on a Wednesday that the ballet was going to close on Friday," she says. "I had been through two crises like that with ATC. It's so terrible, just awful. You can't sleep and all of these dancers had their bags packed."

When she thought of helping in some way, she thought of her husband Jack. The couple -- her second marriage -- had met while serving together on the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

Jack Whiteman, who had died the year before, had owned the Caterpillar dealership here.

"You might not think of that kind of guy as an arts advocate," she says, "but he was. He established a foundation at his company for art. His primary interest was arts education."

As it turned out, the ballet's announced closing date was Jack's birthday.

Says Whiteman, "I thought, 'What a lovely gift that would be to Jack's memory.'"

Patronage usually begins with some sort of passion.

"With us," says Daniel Albrecht, former president of the board of the Heard Museum, "you could probably call it an obsession."

The sprawling Santa Fe-style house that he and his wife, Martha -- a second marriage for both -- share in Paradise Valley is swelling with the usual symptoms of collectors who just can't help themselves. Theirs is the Native American strain.

The living-room mantel holds three ceramic plates by the renowned potter Maria Martinez. An abstract sculpture in greenish soapstone by New Mexico artist Allan Houser is parked not far away. Native American paintings, textiles and baskets fill the rest of the walls and nooks in the room and nearby hallway. Inuit sculptures, mostly in whale bone and soapstone, have commandeered nearly every other surface in the house.

The kitchen is a holding room for newly arrived works. More platoons, some still shrouded in bubble wrap, occupy distant anterooms and some marginal acreage in the two-car (both Mercedeses) garage. Cedar-lined drawers throughout the house nest hundreds of smaller works.

This isn't the Albrechts' first brush with collecting. Martha, who headed the Heard Museum's guild and is on the board of the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, has always been interested in Native American art. Daniel, who ran a successful industrial equipment business, previously filled a house in Illinois with English furniture, porcelain and other Anglo goodies. When he moved to Santa Fe and met Martha, the couple collected some of the finest metalwork being produced in New Mexico.

All of the gates, doorknobs and chandeliers of their PV home are hand-forged gems.

"We have broad interests," Daniel says. "We like the good stuff, whether it's fine plants or a good design for a swimming pool, or whether it's beating an architect to death to get out a decent house."

They like the adventure and hunt of looking for objects that aren't like the ones they already have.

They also like the idea of shaping and expanding an institution.

"We got involved with the Inuit," says Daniel, a hefty man with a booming, rapid-fire delivery and a laugh that fills the room, "because it's not something the Heard is collecting. It's not part of its scope. The Heard has material from the Southwest. And that's all it has."

Several years ago, when the Heard was building its new additions, board meetings were full of cheery talk that the museum, Daniel says, "was finally coming of age. Everyone was saying the Heard is finally being recognized. We have a 'national profile.'

"That's like 'Have a nice day,'" says Daniel. "Well, I don't want to have a nice day. I'm busy. I want to do things. So I said to Marty Sullivan, who was the director then, if we're an important, nationwide organization, I want to see our war ax from the Mohawks. I want to see something from the Black Hawks. And do we have any Kickapoo joy juice? Do we have these things? Of course we don't. We're a regional museum. And I said I think we need to expand our horizons. He said that's impossible. We don't have any money for acquisitions."

In the three and a half years that the Albrechts have been sweeping the tundra, from Greenland west across arctic North America, they've purchased about a thousand works.

A small chunk of it has already gone to the Heard, and more is likely headed that way.

"We give here," says Daniel, "because we can't make a mark at the Met. We can't make a mark at the Art Institute in Chicago. Nor do they need for us to make a mark there. But maybe we can really help with the Heard."

This urge to leave a footprint has built museum troves all over the world. But Phoenix institutions have lagged far behind those of other cities in attracting significant works or collections from patrons. Still, there has been some headway.

Gifts of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from the late Sybil Harrington, and additional bequests of early American Modernist paintings from Lorenz and Joan Anderman, have helped to fortify the Phoenix Art Museum's relatively weak core of modern works. The collection of Chinese art that Roy and Marilyn Papp have loaned to PAM has helped to make the museum a national stop for traveling exhibitions of Chinese art.

Such gifts often come with strings attached.

"A patron is not just somebody who rubber-stamps a check," says Diane Cummings Halle. "A patron is somebody -- if they're giving money -- who wants to see that their goals are met, that there's some kind of an evaluation at the end of the process."

Six years ago she set out to do at the Phoenix Art Museum what the Albrechts are doing at the Heard. She wanted to put the museum on the national map by purchasing a collection of modern and contemporary art from Latin America.

She sees the collection as providing an essential cultural bridge to Phoenix's booming Latino population, a necessary step for the museum to take.

She and her husband, Bruce Halle, who owns Discount Tire, knew nothing about Latin American works before they began.

But, like the Albrechts, the couple leapt into the education and adventure that comes with collecting.

"We wanted to be able to travel to some of these countries, visit the people, listen to their language, their music, or read some of the poetry they write, to really kind of infiltrate other people's cultures."

In the past six years, Halle, who was previously married to the philanthropist Herbert Cummings, has spent an estimated $5 million on approximately 80 works by some 40 artists from 13 nations.

"I'm trying to give them a first-class collection," she says. "I am trying to give them something they don't have in any other area. It hopefully will be the best Latin American collection collected by an American."

Howard Hirsch has always been looking for something else to do. From the 1950s through the late 1980s, he and his brother ran a successful company that manufactured screws and nuts. But he never really liked the business.

"Too many engineers and people who were too regulated by their thinking," he says. "So I was always trying in some ways to get out of it. The problem was that everything I tried to do to get out of it or make it more interesting just made my company different from my competitors."

The business only got better and better.

Most screw-and-nut catalogues of the day were printed in black and white. Hirsch's was in color. He filled his company's Illinois offices with art. To lift his employees above the smoke, noise and grime of the factory floor, he instituted Screw U, a series of informal lunch-hour seminars -- meals on the house -- about art. And on the company's 25th anniversary in 1978, he filled the acreage around his factory with sculptures by contemporary artists. On another plot of land, he displayed General Motors trucks, Ford cars and Whirlpool appliances -- all companies that used Hirsch's fasteners.

"What I was really trying to do was to get our employees to realize that there was a relationship between these things and what they did. I wanted them to think better of what they were doing, to see themselves as artisans."

Now, he wants more of the Valley's wealthy transplants to see themselves as patrons.

Last year he formed the Five Arts Circle, a private group that seeks $5,000 contributions from members in exchange for special access to five Valley arts institutions. The Circle's first year brought in 25 patrons and $125,000. The money went in $25,000 chunks to the Arizona Opera, Ballet Arizona, Scottsdale Center for the Arts, the Phoenix Symphony and Phoenix Art Museum.

Hirsch and his wife, Lori, have been working together on the project. They want to double those numbers this year.

"I get the feeling sometimes that people see patronage as an Eastern thing," he says. "I think people would like to help more but they don't know how. So we've got to train people to pick up this responsibility."

The training isn't as tough as one might think. The first "class" took place in late March, in an art-filled home just north of the Paradise Valley Country Club. The lure was mezzo-soprano Isola Jones, a Valley resident who's performed hundreds of times with New York's Metropolitan Opera, and with many other orchestras throughout the world.

Waiting for the cocktail-hour audience of 70 or so prospective patrons to gather around her, she stood before a gleaming black grand piano, smiling and gently rolling a napkin between her palms.

Then, with barely a nod, her piano accompanist stroked the opening chords of the Habañera from Bizet's opera Carmen. She tossed her mane of black hair to one side and inhaled a cavern of air. Her voice, powerful and pure, buzzed the panes of the immense wall of windows behind her and stirred a dog in a far-off room to wail.

Jones kept on singing. Eyes wide, nostrils flaring, mists of spit pluming from booming consonants, she was every inch the unflappable diva -- a mermaid enticing budding patrons toward the philanthropic deep.

"You wouldn't get this for a thousand-dollar donation to the symphony in Chicago," Sheldon Berman, a retired business owner, said afterward. "You make a contribution there, and maybe you get a thank-you card. Here you get Isola Jones."

In the years that Berman and his wife, Lynne, who are in the process of relocating here from Chicago, contributed to Windy City cultural institutions, they never tipped glasses with any of the muck-a-mucks.

"Here, I have," he says. "You can mix with these people."

Circle members are invited to cocktail parties and dinners at the Scottsdale Cultural Council and the Phoenix Art Museum.

"The Ballet, the Opera and the Symphony have also been very kind to us," adds Berman. "That gives you the feeling that you're much more meaningful to them."

Hirsch came up with the plan while riding around in a golf cart. He was playing the links with a fellow collector who owns a sizable collection of works by the late American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Hirsch asked the man what he had planned for the work after his death:

"He said it was going to the Guggenheim, in New York. So I said, 'Don't you think some of it should come here?'"

Hirsch says his golfing pal didn't appreciate the criticism.

"He got pretty incensed at me," says Hirsch. "But that got me thinking about how to change this lack of commitment to the institutions we've got here."

He asked several other golf buddies if they'd be willing to pay $5,000 to an organization that connected them to the arts in Arizona. Two wrote him a check.

He and his friends began scouring the putting greens and poring over recent high-end home sales for likely prospects.

Hirsch's route to Phoenix is similar to that of other transplants. He and his first wife, Judy, who died several years ago, began coming here for the winter around 1990.

At first they stayed at the ritzy north end of Scottsdale. They eventually gravitated south, buying a house near downtown Scottsdale, to be closer to the Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

Sitting at a glass-topped table just beyond his kitchen, Hirsch momentarily ponders a large, colorful abstract painting on a nearby wall.

"I used to buy inexpensive art," he says. "In fact, I used to be part of a collector's group in Chicago. And there was a gal there who had the only wooden Calder in the world. All that means is you can afford a very expensive piece. It had nothing to do with anything else. I told her that and she said, 'Well, that might be true, but you should try it sometime.'"

The comment nagged Hirsch into doing that. He finally bought an abstract metal sculpture -- he still has it -- by Mark DiSuvero.

"But I found out that that doesn't do it for me."

Hirsch says he got to the point where he nearly stopped collecting.

"I found that owning the object wasn't the important part," he says. "The process of art was more important, how things are done, why they're done."

He taps his head and raises his brows.

"This is where the experience of art is."

The realization led him to develop a summer art program at his rural Wisconsin farm.

At first he considered using the farm as a site for a series of monumental outdoor sculptures.

"He thought about that," says Russell Panczenko, director of the Elvehjem Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where Hirsch sponsored a forum on sculpture. "But then he went in the direction of making it a think tank. He was really looking to it as a way to go somewhere himself. He didn't want to bring things to a close. He wanted to keep things open. That's really very unusual for a patron."

Hirsch says that instead of building objects, he wanted to document what artists were doing and thinking in the last 10 years of the 20th century. He invested about $100,000 a year in the effort, each summer inviting a different group of artists. The farm project compiled the sessions in a series of books filled with esoteric notions that he's still trying to figure out.

"This couldn't be done with public money, because public money requires you to have a specific result as part of the project. This thing, I never knew what I was going to get."

He sees the Circle effort as a similar kind of open-ended collaboration.

"It's another one of my experiments. And I don't know how it's going to turn out, but we need it. These are people who are coming here, spending their winters, and living in some very expensive homes," he says. "Some of them collect and give to institutions back home. They enjoy the benefits of the museums and organizations here, but they aren't getting involved."

Kax Herberger barely turns her stiffened neck to gesture across her wide living room at a painting by the late Scottsdale artist Philip Curtis on a far wall.

"That's The Fighters," she says without looking. "It's the only one he ever did with cowboys and guns. It's strange because it has two moons, one through the balcony and one through the window."

Across an open doorway leading down a hall with more art on the walls, another large frame contains several more Curtis paintings, all of them portrait miniatures. A third Curtis hangs not far from where she sits, bolt upright.

It's early evening, and the manicured desert landscape beyond a curving, north-facing bank of windows glows the late-day colors that were Curtis' trademark.

Herberger's back is to the windows, yet the reflected light from the high ceiling brightens her backswept wave of grayish-white hair, her white sweater and blouse.

Of all the objects atop the credenzas, coffee tables and shelves in the spacious room, the Curtis paintings, from the 1960s, and a small bowl atop an inscribed plaque from ASU, dated a year ago, are the only obvious bookends of Herberger's years of generosity.

In 1960, she joined a small group of Phoenix patrons who supported Curtis for several years, so he could concentrate on painting. Two years later, she made the first of 99 gifts to ASU that led up to last year's $12 million contribution.

Herberger initially asked that her recent ASU gift remain anonymous. But the university wanted her name.

"I told her what it would mean to other potential donors," says Robert Wills, the fine arts college dean. "She's a model that people can look at. And identifying her as an anonymous wealthy older woman isn't the same kind of model."

"She's not doing it for any of the personal reasons that people sometimes do," adds Wills. "She's not trying to gain stature for herself. She wants nothing in return, except to see the money help young people."

Says Herberger: "If you have a talent, it's a God-given talent. Supporting that just seemed like the natural thing to do. I suppose I gave just because I could."

Herberger arrived here as a snowbird in the late 1940s. Her late husband, Robert, had owned department stores in the upper Midwest. They retired here in 1949, then invested widely, and smartly, in real estate.

"I never thought of this place as a cultural desert," says Herberger. "There were always artists here, good artists."

Like Carol Whiteman, she grew up in a cultured home. Her mother played the piano; her father, a doctor, played the mandolin, flute and piccolo.

"I took up the violin," she says. "My sister took up the cello. And my brother played the flute and piccolo, so we had our own family orchestra and every Sunday afternoon we played classical music, just the family."

Herberger studied pottery after moving to Phoenix. Then artists Lew and Mathilde Davis encouraged her to try portrait sculpture.

"So that became my forte," she says.

Pointing to a small bronze bust on a coffee table beside her, she says, "This is a wonderful head I did of Bob, my husband." Other busts, in reddish clay, of her children and grandchildren sit elsewhere in the room.

Arthritis pushed her from sculpture to needlepoint. But failing eyesight and stiffening joints finally forced her to abandon that, too.

Yet she can still write checks. And people still come to her with their hands out.

"That isn't to say she'll give it to you," says Danny Medina, the publisher of ArtTalk and Scottsdale Trends, who has known Herberger for more than 20 years. "She tells a funny story about having lunch with a gal once and this gal said, 'Now, Kax, wouldn't it be possible for you to write me a million-dollar check' for something? And Kax said, 'You know, honey, I forgot my checkbook today.' She didn't get angry, she just took it in stride."

Yet one thing does bother her.

"My beef," she says, "is that all of these chairmen and presidents of the boards, with these huge salaries and bonuses, do not give themselves. They take credit for what their businesses do. But they themselves are not really philanthropic. And they need to be."

Friends say that as long as they've known Herberger, she's never had to be goaded into giving to culture.

"I don't think it's all that complicated," she says. "Art is the one thing that survives."

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow