Like many others, I was very happily surprised recently when the Great American Songbook Foundation announced philanthropist Bren Simon was donating her 107-acre Asherwood estate in Carmel to the organization. The estate is the former home of philanthropist Simon and her late husband,, co-founder of Simon Property Group, the nation’s largest shopping mall owner and real estate investment trust. Simon’s gift includes all the real estate and personal property at Asherwood, with a total appraised value at more than $30 million. No longer occupied by Simon, the estate includes a fully furnished 50,000-square-foot main house, an 8,000-square-foot clubhouse, a 6,000-square-foot guesthouse, several other structures and two golf courses.
Hoping to eventually create a Great American Songbook Hall of Fame Museum, the Foundation will leverage the donation toward its goal. The museum will be dedicated to popular music of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood. Founded in 2007 by five-time Grammy Award-nominee Michael Feinstein, the Foundation’s headquarters are at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.
The Foundation operates a Songbook Archives and Library. With 100,000 items, it is second only to the Library of Congress as a repository of documents, recordings and other artifacts from the 20th century heyday of the Great American Songbook. The holdings include personal papers and other pieces from legendary performers and songwriters. The collections, which attract musicians and researchers from around the world, are currently stored at a facility near the Palladium concert hall, where the Foundation maintains its offices and a public exhibit space.
In July, the Foundation made another major announcement that the Los Angeles-based Grammy Museum named the Songbook Foundation to its Cultural Affiliate program, which includes only four other institutions worldwide. Cultural Affiliates collaborate on exhibitions, educational initiatives, research programs, internship opportunities, technical support and more. The Grammy Museum is among the entities providing expertise and assistance to the Songbook Foundation in its museum planning.
The Asherwood gift announcement was of special interest to me as I have covered the Foundation and Songbook Academy since their inception. Since then, I have interviewed Feinstein several times, written numerous reviews of Songbook Academy Vocal Competition Finals concerts and interviewed all of the Songbook Ambassadors. During that time, I have also communicated regularly with Foundation Executive Director Chris Lewis. Recently, I caught up with Chris at a Carmel restaurant where we enjoyed lunch followed by a brief interview. Here’s an edited transcript of our chat.
How has the gift from Bren Simon changed your job description?
The Academy is just one part of the Foundation. With this incredible gift of this estate, I have more than doubled my staff at the Songbook Foundation, so that will have an impact on the organization as a whole. I am learning a lot about how to run an estate. It was not in my original job description, but I am enjoying learning. In terms of the Foundation, we have to be very diligent about not losing the momentum we have with the Foundation. We have great momentum with the Academy. We are growing every year. We don’t want to lose focus on that at all, or our other programs, like our Perfect Harmony program. It has grown from a once-a-month offering to a twice a week now. We are conducting it for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia issues, so there was already a lot going on at the Foundation. There is now even more going on with this extraordinary gift. Our goal now is to see how it will actually advance our mission on all fronts.
What are some misconceptions about the gift?
Mrs. Simon made this gift, incredibly, with no restrictions. Her only caveat was that this gift advances the mission of the Great American Songbook Foundation. To that end, we have no specific plans. This may one day be a museum. We don’t know. This just happened. We are just two weeks into the new year with this gift, so we have a lot of work to do. A gift like this comes along with accountability, so we want to be very strategic and very deliberate in how we proceed. We’ll be conducting feasibility studies to see if it is even viable to have a museum at this location. It’s beautiful, but it’s a home. What will it take to make it a museum? These are all considerations that we have to address. And again, the museum is just one part of our mission. We have educational programs; we have the Hall of Fame, so there is a lot going on at the Foundation. The museum is one of our long-term goals, so we feel this will help us get there, whether this is the museum or if it serves as an endowment.
How did the gift come about?
We were in conversations a few years ago. Mrs. Simon was looking to donate part of the estate to a nonprofit. We met with her. Nothing came of that and she pursued other avenues. Last spring, she approached us again and said she had been following the Foundation and wanted to know more about our strategic goals and what we saw for the future. She wanted to know if a gift like this would advance our mission and help us with our fundraising. We did a lot of work and a lot of due diligence. We made our case, which she liked, and it was a few months later when she wanted to pursue it.
Did you think the Foundation would advance so quickly?
Becoming a cultural affiliate of the Grammy Museum was really a dream come true, to have that stamp of approval at this stage; like Michael said at the press conference when it was announced, who would have thought a few years ago that we would have gotten this far? There are only five Grammy Cultural Affiliates in the entire world, and the fact that we are one of them, speaks to what we are doing. And as I said when we made the announcement about Asherwood, I feel like we have been spring-boarded about ten years into the future. This is really a game-changer for the organization.
Did you receive national press coverage?
We did. We received a lot of local television and print coverage. We had articles in publications from San Francisco to New York to Florida and even on NPR. We were excited about the national attention and it’s certainly raising the profile of the organization.
What is the status of this year’s Songbook Academy?
We are receiving applicants and audition videos from students across the country. The online application went live at the end of November, but we are just now starting our marketing efforts, so you’ll see lots of videos and testimonials coming across on social media. The application closes in March and then the screening process will determine the top 40 singers across the country and every student will get written feedback from our panel of screeners. Then we’ll name the top 40 and they’ll arrive in July.
For information about The Great American Songbook Foundation visit www.thecenterfortheperformingarts.org.