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Robin Hood Inc.

Local arts groups benefited greatly from Stanford's shady largesse.

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A report generated by the Stanford Global Foundation, a philanthropic arm of the scandal-tainted Stanford International Bank, proclaims: "At the heart of every great organization is simply a heart." Apparently that's true even for organizations engaging in multi-billion-dollar fraud, and that's why so many leaders of Memphis' not-for-profit arts groups have expressed mixed emotions when considering Stanford's apparent malfeasance. If the bank was in fact robbing its clients with the promise of impossibly high-yielding investments, Stanford was exceptionally generous in sharing its ill-gotten gains with a variety of Memphis arts groups.

Susan Schadt, executive director of ArtsMemphis, describes Stanford as a "perfect corporate partner." Ryan Fleur at the Memphis Symphony Orchestra describes the bank as "a generous corporate citizen." Everybody, from Playhouse on the Square's executive producer Jackie Nichols to spokespersons for Ballet Memphis, say the company was excellent when it came to fulfilling financial pledges and paying their bills on time.

Schadt, whose organization develops mutually beneficial relationships between the business community and local arts organizations, says she couldn't begin to put an annual dollar figure on Stanford's giving. She says it's too early to project what Stanford's absence will mean to the Memphis arts community. In a climate of economic uncertainty, she says there's no guarantee that Stanford would have continued to give vast sums to the arts, even if there had never been an SEC investigation.

Schadt says that Stanford gave ArtsMemphis $500,000 in 2003. In 2005, she partnered with Stanford Foundation president Suzanne Hamm to create the Stanford Financial Excellence in the Arts Award, a two-tiered prize rewarding — ironically — fiscal responsibility and growth in local art organizations.

Debbie Litch, Theatre Memphis' executive producer, says she was both grateful and surprised when her organization won SFEA's Keystone Award twice, for a total of $70,000.

"The money was unrestricted, so there was no stipulation as to how it had to be spent," says Litch.

Jerre Dye, the artistic director for Voices of the South, a small theater company that develops and produces original work, describes the $30,000 infusion that came from a pair of SFEA"Milestone" awards as "a huge blessing." "We've been able to use [the money] in so many ways," Dye says. "Much of the gift has gone toward keeping the Memphis Children's Theatre Festival a pay-what-you-can experience for area families."

The Stanford name graces the hall at the Cannon Center, where the Memphis Symphony plays. And the bank was a named sponsor for various events benefiting WKNO, including its art auction and a visit to Memphis by Civil War documentarian Ken Burns. Spokespersons for both organizations say they did not have any outstanding pledges from Stanford.

"It is our practice not to disclose sponsorship dollar figures without the written permission of donors," says WKNO's Teri Sullivan. "Without being specific, we can tell you that in the past, Stanford support has been in the low five figures."

The Brooks Museum's Art of Good Taste wine auction has been a big beneficiary of Stanford's largesse, receiving $120,000 over the past three years. According to Brooks director Cameron Kitchin, the annual sponsorship amount dropped from $50,000 to $20,000 in 2008. Stanford had pledged $20,000 for the 2009 auction.

According to the Brooks' public relations manager, Elisabeth Callihan, "The absence of this sponsorship will not cost anyone their job." Events related to the auction are moving along as planned, she says.

Playhouse on the Square may wind up $175,000 poorer as a result of Stanford's apparent shenanigans, but Jackie Nichols is taking a glass-half-full view of the unfortunate situation. Stanford had already paid $75,000 toward a $250,000 pledge for the construction of the theater's new multipurpose facility.

"The price of steel has dropped 25 percent," Nichols says jovially, explaining that Playhouse collected 75 percent of its pledges for the new building before the economy began to falter. "My building costs have been lowered significantly."

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