How Herb Alpert's $5.5 Million Saved the Harlem School of the Arts

Herb Albert Portrait - P 2013
Philip Ritterman

Herb Albert Portrait - P 2013

The music legend's gift puts his name on the door and means no more worrying about "how to keep the lights on."

This story first appeared in the March 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

Two years ago, the Harlem School of the Arts was forced to close its doors for a month because of a budget crisis. Now, thanks to musician-turned-philanthropist Herb Alpert, its financial house is in order and its corridors are alive with the sound of dancers' swift feet and the echoing lines of great playwrights.

In appreciation, on March 11 it will rename itself The Harlem School of the Arts -- The Herb Alpert Center. The rebranding comes after Alpert helped rescue it with a lion's share of grants totaling $5.5 million from his foundation, established in 1988 with his wife, singer Lani Hall.

For nearly a half-century, the private school -- founded by concert soprano Dorothy Maynor -- has provided free or low-cost visual and performing arts classes to 3,000 mainly African-American and Latino neighborhood children. Its graduates have gone on to schools like Juilliard and professional careers, among them Tony-winning actress Condola Rashad and Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito.

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Alpert read about the situation in The New York Times in 2010 and stepped in with half of the $1 million needed to resume classes and later with more than $5 million to replenish the endowment, pay off the school's mortgage and fund scholarships.

"I couldn't imagine that an artistic community like Harlem could lose an art center. The arts open up a child's imagination," says Alpert, who grew up in L.A.'s Fairfax district and remembers when his grammar school invited students to select an instrument from a table. "I picked up a trumpet and got interested in playing. Kids for the most part are not having that opportunity anymore."

School president Yvette Campbell says that because of Alpert, school officials no longer are worrying about "how we're going to keep the lights on."

Harlem is only the most recent beneficiary of Alpert's philanthropy. Since 1990, the A&M Records co-founder has given $120 million to arts education, including a $30 million grant to UCLA to establish the Herb Alpert School of Music -- a generous gesture from a guy who once played in USC's marching band.