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.