Behind virtually every cultural institution in America stands a group of volunteer supporters who get little public recognition. Yet these folks work for free, contribute their own money and often devote huge amounts of time to the organizations they serve. For this article we spoke with four San Antonio women who have made an impact as volunteer activists, philanthropists and arts advocates. Without them and others like them, San Antonio’s cultural scene would be much poorer.
“I SERVE BECAUSE I MUST”
That’s how Aaronetta Pierce describes her life-long commitment to the arts, and the words are most appropriate. How else can one explain her willingness to help the community in a myriad of roles, from museum docent in the early 1980s to chair of the prestigious Texas Medal of Arts Award today?
In between, she made history on several occasions. To begin with, back in the 1980s, Pierce was instrumental in spurring the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) to mount its first exhibit of African- American artists, an event that echoed around the state and increased awareness of black art here and elsewhere in Texas.
Later, as the chair of Mayor Henry Cisneros’ Blue Ribbon Committee on the Arts, she held a series of meetings with local artists and arts organizations and prepared a report that contributed to the creation of a separate department – now office – of cultural affairs in the city government. Pierce was also the first African- American woman to sit on the Texas Commission on the Arts and only the second black person to be part of that panel.
But her involvement hardly stopped there. She also served for 12 years on the Fisk University Board of Trustees, was a founding chairperson of the local Martin Luther King Jr. Commission and continues to work in various capacities with a number of other institutions such as United Way of San Antonio, Las Casas Foundation, the UTSA Development Board and others.
“I feel exalted that I have the opportunity to serve,” says Pierce when we get together to talk at her cozy new townhouse in North Central San Antonio. “I am fortunate that my position allows me the luxury of time to represent the part of the community that’s often without a voice. I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. In each instance, I feel I have to stay until I can make a difference.”
Right now she is making a difference at the state level as a member of the Texas Cultural Trust Council (TCTC) and the co-chair of the Texas Medal of Arts Award, TCTC’s signature celebratory and fund-raising event. The Cultural Trust was created by the Texas Legislature in 1993 as a private/public partnership to provide a stable funding source for the Texas Commission on the Arts.
But the biennial Medal of Arts wasn’t presented until 2001, when another San Antonian, Joci Strauss, came up with the idea of honoring Texans who had achieved prominence in the arts or arts-related philanthropy. Though right now there are some unresolved issues between the Legislature and TCTC, Pierce, who also participated in the selection of honorees, has been working hard to make the 2007 celebration a success.
“This is an exciting process. Texas has produced so many stars, and we have the opportunity to let them know that their state is proud of what they have done while at the same time letting the Legislature and the public know what the artists have accomplished,” she says.
The April 2-3 celebration features a variety of special occasions, including a lunch at the governor’s mansion, a gala dinner at the Driskill Hotel in Austin and the awards ceremony at the Paramount Theater. Among the 2007 medal recipients are actress Sissy Spacek, best-selling writer Sandra Brown, jazzman Ornette Coleman, sculptor Jesus Moroles and veteran theater director and educator Paul Baker. Walter Cronkite will be recognized for lifetime achievement.
As a child growing up in segregated Nashville, Tenn., Pierce couldn’t even go to see a ballet performance. It was against the law, she says. Nevertheless, she was exposed to great artists of all genres who came to visit the (black) Tennessee State University, where her father was a dean. In that very special milieu, she was also able to take part in theater programs and take dance and piano classes. “That is why I know how important the arts are to a child’s life,” says Pierce. “I also learned that there were great black artists
out there, and that instilled in me a sense of my culture. I knew that I was connected to a great tradition. Most black children didn’t have that opportunity.”
Later in life, she made it her mission to increase the general public’s awareness of black artists and their work. The decisive moment came in 1983 when a black girl who was visiting SAMA with her school group asked docent Pierce why there weren’t any black people shown in the pictures on the walls. Accustomed “not to be represented,” Pierce was jolted into a re-evaluation of her own activity.
Later, when she became a SAMA board member, she shyly suggested that the museum replace a canceled show with an exhibit of African-American art that eventually became reality under the title of Hidden Treasures. The title referred to the fact that even museum curators were unfamiliar with those works. Not only did it change local museum habits, but as mentioned above, Hidden Treasures had a statewide impact. In 1990, Pierce and her husband, Dr. Joseph Pierce, established Premier Artworks, Inc. to market and act as brokers for clients interested in black visual artists.
Her advocacy, however, is not limited to any one group or culture. Because she enjoyed the arts as a child, she wants all kids to have similar opportunities. She speaks fondly of TCTC’s Young Masters Program, which supports arts education for youngsters 8 to 12.
For the 2007 Medal of Arts program, Pierce is trying to get the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to come to perform. She’s also pushing for an award to be given posthumously to honor Ailey’s legacy. The great black choreographer was a small-town Texan who nevertheless achieved a huge dream. In fact, his work was often inspired by his early life in Rogers, Texas. That’s what Pierce wants both black and white kids to know.
She explains, “Ailey’s story is one of vision. He was a creative genius who was born in Rogers. Maybe we can touch young people in Rogers and other small communities and help them understand what possibilities exist for them. The creative spirit happens everywhere.”
PRESENT AND ACTIVE
When Betty Halff took a job as UTSA’s first development director back in 1983, her mother asked what kind of work she would be doing. “I will be asking people for money,” Halff answered. “Now why would a nice girl like you want to do that?” her mama wondered.
Laughing, Halff assures us that it is a true story. As to why “a nice girl would do that,” the answer is easy. Where there is a need in the community, and especially in the arts and education fields, she has always wanted to pitch in and help to the best of her ability. Now retired but still ready to help, Halff chairs the development board at the McNay Art Museum as a volunteer.
“I felt I owed it to my forebears who have brought the museum to life and sustained it through 50 years,” she says. By “forebears” she doesn’t mean necessarily her own ancestors. As a San Antonian who has had ties to the McNay since she was a young adult, she is referring to philanthropists such as Emily Wells Brown, Margaret Tobin, Jane and Arthur Stieren, Mary and Sylvan Lang and others like them whose contributions have made the McNay what it is today.
In fact, when we meet at the museum for this interview, she takes us first to visit a small side gallery that pays tribute to these generous individuals. Then, as we move through the galleries, talking and looking at the exhibits, her love and knowledge of the place become evident. Each gallery has a story, and Halff is happy to share all of them with her visitor.
“And look out there!” she says as we pass by a window, proudly pointing at the construction going on outside. “The new extension will double the size of our exhibit space, and it’s (architecturally) complementary to the residence (the old building). There will also be a sculpture garden out there, probably the only one of its kind in San Antonio.”
The total cost of the much-needed expansion is $50 million. As the development chair, Halff is now overseeing the final leg of that capital campaign in addition to building an endowment for the future and raising funds for 60 percent of the museum’s operating budget. Before agreeing to join the board, she asked only when the meetings were held, because she wanted to make sure that she could attend. The money goals did not intimidate her.
“You have to be present and active. That’s the important thing,” she says. “Fund raising is part art and part technique. Mainly, it’s contacting people who you think will be interested and telling them your story. You have to be on the level in presenting your case and to make sure that you can deliver what you promise. It helps to have knowledge of your community; you have to meet people whom you hope to attract to your cause.”
And, she says, many people are happy to donate once they understand how important their support is. The arts educate, inspire and enhance life. There is also plenty of evidence that strong arts institutions benefit the city’s economy both directly through their activities and indirectly because their existence helps companies recruit qualified professionals.
Originally educated as a nurse, Halff has been involved in the community her entire life both as a volunteer and a professional. As a young mother of two, she remembers bringing her daughters frequently to the McNay to learn about art. For a while she also belonged to the museum’s first support group, the Friends of the McNay, and other local organizations such as the San Antonio Symphony League and the Conservation Society. After her children got a little older, Halff looked for paid work.
“This was in the 1960s, when there was a lot of unrest here, a lot of poverty, unemployment and illness,” she recalls. “I went to work for the Southwest Programs Development Corporation, which developed programs to address these issues.”
A few years later, she got a master’s degree in public administration and worked for a while with the Alamo Area Council of Governments before joining UTSA as development director in 1983. Unfortunately, that was not the only change in her life that year. Just six months before, she had lost her first husband, psychiatrist Dr. Neville Murray, the father of her children. When she left UTSA 12 years later, the school established an endowed scholarship in her name and in 2004 honored her with its Distinguished Service Award.
Compared to her job at the university, fund raising for the McNay is easier, she says. She explains, “The university has so many programs and aspects, you have to work harder. Back then, UTSA was still a young school trying to develop a constituency. Things moved slower because there were so many layers of decision making. But it was a fascinating job.
“I had to deal with all sorts of requests and strange donations. Professors regarded me as a resource. One of them asked me once to get him cow eyes (for his studies). We found a way to do it. On another occasion someone offered us several tons of rock. We had to establish that it was geologically significant rock and ended up taking it. In a private institution like the McNay you are more focused, and decisions can be made faster.”
Besides the McNay, Halff and her second husband, Howard Halff, a former Texaco executive, support the Witte, the Southwest School of Art and Craft, the San Antonio Museum of Art and several health-related nonprofits. In the past, she and her family were involved with the San Pedro Playhouse, and she also helped found the literary center Gemini Ink. In addition, the couple supports visual artists directly by buying their work, especially American Southwestern art.
As donors, the Halffs give where the need is the greatest and have not cared to have their name attached to a particular room, collection or program.
So does she consider herself a philanthropist?
A bit surprised by the question, she hesitates a moment. “No … I consider myself generous. My husband is very generous. We like giving and helping.”
“St. Pat” is what the folks at the Josephine Theater call Pat Frost, the wife of banker and community stalwart Tom Frost.
This low-key lady who shuns the limelight earned her “sainthood” back in 2003 when she virtually single-handedly saved the theater from impending closure. The story of that rescue is a dramatic example of how one person can make a huge difference. It all started with a tap dance class.
“I love to take tap. I’ve been taking classes since 1986 or “87 and have had several different teachers,” says Frost. “At the time (in 2003) I didn’t have one, but I found out that we could have a class at the Josephine. I got a group of friends together and we went there for classes.”
The teacher was Missy Miller, the theater’s artistic/executive director and a former dancer who choreographs just about everything staged at the Josephine. While Frost and her group practiced their steps, they also got to know Miller and her family members, several of whom are involved with the running of the theater.
That’s how Frost discovered that the Josephine was in danger of closing. Tetco, the owner of the property that housed the theatrical operation, wanted to sell, and it was entirely possible that the new owners might not extend the Josephine Theatrical Company’s unofficial lease. “Unofficial” because Miller had no written contract with Tetco.
The Millers tried to secure a loan to buy the property themselves, but it was tough going. Despite repeated efforts and some seemingly promising prospects, in August of 2003 the future looked bleak.
“They needed only $520,000 but had no collateral to borrow against,” explains Frost, who had attended a performance of the acclaimed Oh, Say Can You Swing show at the theater and had walked out impressed. “Their product was good. The productions were as good as on Broadway. It was also an enlightening experience for me to see how much work goes into a show. It was mind-boggling to see what they had to do.”
A private person who lets her husband shine in the public arena, Frost nevertheless decided to help. After consulting with people in the know, Frost concluded that the Josephine, as a nonprofit, should raise money through donations. She then spearheaded a campaign by writing 200 letters to friends and acquaintances, inviting them to contribute at different levels.
“My husband said, “You are not going to get any kind of response from letters alone,’ but I got a 100-percent response,” she says, smiling. “I got $250,000 in response to my letters.” Since the deadline for purchasing the property was a couple of months away, Frost Bank provided the rest of the funds in the form of a loan.
“Pat literally saved us,” says Miller gratefully. “We had reached a point where we didn’t know what to do next. She was so involved. She would call my mom (the Josephine’s office manager) every day to ask what was in the mail because some of the checks went to her, and some came directly to us. She has taught me a lot about the business side of things, how to approach people for donations, how to go about getting grants.”
Frost continued to volunteer at the theater, both by opening up communication channels between the Millers and the grant-giving foundations and by physically helping with many practical things, such as creating centerpieces for special events. On two occasions, she and her tap group even performed at donor appreciation parties.
“That was so much fun,” she says. “My husband can speak like you can’t believe, but I can barely say thank you. But dance I can do.” Miller agrees: “That lady is in terrific shape.”
Frost says she has always been content just to support her husband of 55 years while keeping the home fires going. She loved being a mother and now a grandmother of 14. For years she sewed all her clothes, bought virtually no jewelry and tended her own garden.
Although she served on a few boards in the past, the church was her only major outside involvement. In a world that seems overcrowded with publicity seekers, her modest restraint is positively refreshing. Yet when she puts her mind to something, “I am stubborn about getting things done,” she says. Thus, it’s not surprising that she also earned the nickname of “Bulldog” for her perseverance.
In the lobby of the Josephine Theater, a permanent tribute to Pat Frost’s campaign stands on the “Wall of Stars” where plaques recognize the various contributors. But for now, Frost has once again retreated into her private sphere as several pressing family matters have claimed her attention recently. However, she fully supports Tom’s philanthropic commitments.
“He often quotes Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, much is required,'” she says. “I believe that, too.”
YOU CAN’T BE BASHFUL
The San Antonio Symphony’s troubled financial past doesn’t trouble Debbie Montford. As the incoming board chairperson and the current development leader at SAS, Montford tackles her tasks with the cool resolve of one who must succeed.
“It’s a challenge,” she admits. “I have never talked to any volunteers who didn’t feel that it’s one of the most challenging board experiences. But the symphony is in the black right now and has been for the last three years. That’s what both the musicians and supporters want. The goal of the board – this is not just me – is to find a way to see sustainability in the future. I don’t want to just come on budget. We are committed to the survival of the symphony because great cities have great orchestras. The community wants to see this prosper.”
Her commitment is all the more remarkable given that she and her husband, John Montford, senior vice-president for legislative and regulatory affairs at AT&T, are recent transplants to San Antonio. They moved here in 2001 from Lubbock, where John served as the first Texas Tech University System chancellor.
In addition to her SAS responsibilities, Montford is a member of the Texas Cultural Trust Council and is, in fact, co-chairing the Texas Medal of Arts event with Aaronetta Pierce. And not surprisingly, this energetic lady is also chair of annual giving for the San Antonio Public Library Foundation. As a fund-raiser, she is effective because of her personal approach.
“I work one on one,” she explains. “I invite people on a personal level. You can’t be bashful about calling people and asking for their support. My philosophy of fund raising is that people give to people; they give because they trust your judgment. I do a lot of calling, a lot of meeting with people and business lunches.” The Montfords also open their Dominion home for SAS and other fundraising events. Bringing people together “is just part of it.”
Having been married to John for 31 years, Montford has had plenty of opportunities to observe how he deals with people. A lawyer, John served in the Texas Senate for 14 years before assuming the chancellor position at Texas Tech. In both jobs, fund raising and networking play a big role.
“John is a brilliant man and a dedicated public servant,” she says. “He has been a good mentor to me. If you can get money for your (political) campaign, essentially selling yourself, you can raise money for anything. He taught me to develop relationships and how to earn the respect of others so that when you come to them, they trust you.”
As the symphony’s soon-to-be chair, however, Montford is concerned with all aspects of the orchestra’s operation. She supported President David Green’s controversial decision not to renew music director Larry Rachleff’s contract because Rachleff’s primary job is in Houston, and he also has too many other engagements. “We want someone who will make a commitment and make this (SAS) his primary priority; someone who wants to live here and be part of this community,” she says. “It’s important for the music director to get to know San Antonio and its rich cultural heritage and keep those in mind when he plans the season.”
Getting the symphony more involved with the community and vice versa is also one of the goals. She points out that free community concerts sponsored by various companies have been both a financial and popular success. For instance, SAS returned to Fort Sam Houston for a grand Memorial Day event last year that attracted 10,000 people. “We must try to find out what people respond to that makes them want to go to the symphony,” she says. “The core product is the classical program, but you have to attract different kinds of people.”
While her husband was in the Senate, Montford was primarily a happy stay-athome mom. But once John took the helm of a university system and with the kids fairly grown, she discovered her own voice as an advocate of campus beautification. In that role, she founded a public art program that commissioned artists and architects to create sculptures and paintings, as well as a new entry gate, to make the campus more inviting.
To support that effort, she also championed a companion landscaping project. Both are still going strong. According to the current program manager, Cecilia Carter-Browne, the national magazine Public Art Review recognized Texas Tech in 2006 as one of the top 10 public art campuses in the nation. The alumni also loved the results, and Montford gained confidence in her vision and fund-raising skills. She also served on Lubbock’s United Way board.
Naturally, if you are invested in a project, you have to make contributions yourself. The Montfords have pledged $1 million to Texas Tech over their lifetime and have given generously to both his and her causes. But she doesn’t spread herself too thin.
“I don’t take board service lightly,” she says. “If you take on too much, you are not as effective. I do better if I serve with two or three organizations that I am passionate about.”
Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams