Philanthropist and TV Writer Maria Bell Honored With Americans for the Arts Award

Joe Schildhorn /BFA.com
Jeff Koons and Maria Bell

"We are the city of artists," says the native Angeleno and former head writer for 'The Young and the Restless,' a longtime arts advocate and passionate Disney fan.

Writer, producer and arts advocate Maria Bell was honored Monday night with an award from Americans for the Arts at Cipriani 42nd St — along with Lady Gaga, Sophia Loren, Herbie Hancock and several others recognized for their contributions to art and philanthropy. Bell has been a major supporter of arts organizations for many years. The third-generation Angeleno was formerly the head writer for The Young and the Restless, where she won the Daytime Emmy Award in 2011 for outstanding drama series writing team. Bell served for years on the board of MOCA and was involved in recruiting former director Jeffrey Deitch to head the struggling museum back in 2010. 

Bell spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about her passion for arts education, Walt Disney and breaking down the barriers between art and life.

When did the arts first have a significant impact on your life?

I grew up in Southern California, and I was fortunate that my big public school had an AP art history class. Taking that class with that particular teacher, who opened my eyes to art and to the world, really changed the course of my life. So I ended up double-majoring in art history and fiction-writing in college, and although I pursued a career in TV, as a writer, the impact of having that visual art in my life was just huge. It led my husband and me to travel a lot to see exhibitions. And then he became a collector, and I became very determined about advocacy and arts education. 

How did you get involved in arts advocacy and arts education?

PS Arts was the first organization that I rolled up my sleeves and got very involved with. I was their chair for maybe seven or eight years, and it just was a very critical time for that organization. They were founded in L.A., and their mission is to put the arts back into public elementary schools that are most at risk.

It was really through PS Arts I saw how having an art teacher in any discipline — whether it was visual arts, dance, music, drama — made such an impact on the schools, on the kids themselves. It brought their parents to the schools, and it turned the schools around in many, many ways. It made them much more a part of the community. By giving art on the elementary level, it expanded the minds of these kids and showed them that they could think creatively and that school was a place where there is not always a right and a wrong answer. And you see how arts transform everyone who comes into contact with it.

Then, I learned about Americans for the Arts, and I saw that they were the national advocacy organization. As much as I was trying on my own — just with chutzpah — to get to people in California, they were doing their campaigns nationwide to show that the arts really mattered in schools. That’s how you don’t lose students. That’s how America stays one of the most creative leaders in the world — by exposing students to art. 

You have also played a major role in the stabilization and transformation of MOCA here in L.A. Can you share some thoughts on helping bring Jeffrey Deitch to the organization and opening up the museum to a broader audience?

That was the whole mission of Jeffrey. When I was chair of MOCA, there was a lot of disarray, and the museum was on the brink of failure. I co-chaired the search for a new director. I had known Jeffrey since the early ’90s and had admired the fact that he was basically a Pied Piper for bringing people to contemporary art and art in general. He is a real, true advocate and has a definition of what art is that is a lot broader than a lot of other people do. 

We are a city of artists — we have the greatest young visual artists working and the greatest art schools in the nation. People in the entertainment business are in the arts, so to see this disconnect in the idea of the museum being an ivory tower — something that wasn’t really for them — in a city filled with artists was something that was sort of my mission when I was at MOCA.  I really wanted people to see that the arts were relevant to all of us in such a powerful way, and since it is a company town, certainly very much relevant to the people in the entertainment business. 

It is no secret that you have a great love for Disneyland. Can you tell me a little bit about how you perceive the legacy of Walt Disney as a pop artist, a patron and an educator?

And he was an artist. And that’s why I’m always trying to make the case to people in Hollywood that it is a town that was built by artists. 

I always say that I grew up in the shadow of the Matterhorn — I grew up in Orange County, Calif., where Disneyland was always a place where everything was so perfect. No matter how imperfect your life was, Disneyland was always perfect. And I felt that seamless experience of what you feel when you are at Disneyland and what you feel when you watch Disney film is what I always tried to get across to people — certainly when I was running The Young and the Restless. For me, there was no detail too small. If you louse up the little details, you absolutely break the reality. That is what Disney really taught us — this absolutely perfectionistic attention to detail that is so rich. And he brings you into his world.

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