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MAY 2004

An Interview with Laurie Tisch Sussman

by Pola Rosen, Ed.D.

Education Update (EU): What contribution in education is of prime importance to you?

Laurie Tisch Sussman (LTS): First and foremost, is the Center for Arts Education, most importantly because of its focus. We directly run programs in 80 schools and with over 150 cultural organizations to whom we give direct grants. We give many more grants to Parents of Arts Partners Program—smaller grants that come directly from the Department of Cultural Affairs to set up programs with parents and their children. The money goes right to the schools and the programs are incredibly successful. We have a large outreach in career-training programs. That started in 1996.

We have influenced the system. Now, for the first time, we have 70 million dollars a year that's part of the school budget and is specifically for the arts. That hasn't happened since the cuts in the 70s. This is city money. Part of it is because we work and advocate with the city. When we gave out our first round of grants 7 years ago, about one third of the schools applied. The mayor, then Guiliani, saw the tremendous need and desire for arts to come back in the public schools.

Almost everything I do in my foundation is either geared to the arts, education and NYC life. I also serve on the newly formed Mayor's Cultural Advisory Commission and the NYS Council on the Arts. We received the Governor's Arts Award in 2001.

EU: Can you expand on the Career Training Program Component?

LTS: High school kids (juniors and seniors) suggested to us by their guidance counselors who have  a B+ average attend a two-week spring break “boot camp.” They learn how to do everything from talk, dress, etc. Then they're matched as interns with the most interesting array of not-for-profits.

EU: What are some of your new endeavors?

LTS: Something new that I'm doing is an outgrowth of chairing the strategic planning for Teachers College. What came out of that was that TC needs some additional focus and direction. After two years of planning we came to the very obvious conclusion that educational equity is the primary issue. Teachers College will be moving toward educational equity in everything it does. We are trying to create a high-level think tank and  Arthur Levine [President of TC] has asked me to chair the think tank. Its papers will be disseminated throughout the nation. It will really make Teachers College the leading venue for experts and policy-makers on the issue of educational equity.

I'm also on the board at the Whitney and Children's Museum. Twenty-one years ago I was introduced to a tiny institution called Manhattan Laboratory Museum/GAME (Grow through Art and Museum Experience). It was a little jewel of a place that nobody had heard of. One thing led to another and I became Vice Chairman and then Chairman. One of the things people don't know about the Children's Museum is that a huge portion of the budget goes to public programs—teen parents, disadvantaged kids, etc. We also have a tremendous number of public school programs.

EU: What's your vision in five years?

LTS: The project with Teachers College is taking off so I hope to come far with that, make a dent and do something for understanding and implementing educational equity. The Center for the Arts has become more international, has become the ombudsman and umbrella organization to ensure that art is integrated into the curriculum and will affect every child. We're the place to go to for research and demonstration events.

EU: Where were you schooled?

LTS: I lived in New Jersey and Miami and attended public schools until I moved to Scarsdale for high school.

EU: Did your family's philosophy of philanthropy influence you?

LTS: I've never used the term “giving back.” I feel like I'm so lucky to have the resources and the ability to actually make things happen. We all get so much mail to buy a ticket for this, a table for that, that sometimes you lose sight of the fact that you're actually making something exist that didn't exist before. Or making something better. My mother was very influential in bringing attention to AIDS and research. I think sometimes people forget and I really try to get my funders and boards to sites in schools so they can see why they're there, they can see what they're making happen.

A few years ago there was a series of front-page articles in the New York Times about the decline of sports in schools, decaying fields, the consequences of no sports, etc. And after I read a few of those articles I called my mother and said, “I think I have a great idea for Bob (my father). He can do for the sports what we, under the guidance of Walter Annenburg, have done for the arts.” On the books were 50 fields and I believe 45 have been completed to date. His project is called, “Take the Field.”

It's really my family that influenced me. Parents, uncles, brothers, cousins, all are involved in caring about society. Just as I never thought there was a choice—to give—it's never occurred to my family to not do community service and it's the same for my children.



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