Washington's Richest Power Players

Want a seat on the board of one of Washington’s elite cultural institutions? From the Kennedy Center to the Smithsonian, the price is going through the roof.

Newscom; Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

Twenty-five years ago, the concept of Washington as a major fiscal center would have been far-fetched, even absurd. In the nexus of New York, Washington, and Los Angeles, Wall Street signified money; the capital, power; and Hollywood, glamour and entertainment. But during the Reagan era, the differences started to meld and by the mid-1980s, the private sector stimulus took hold, the defense industry took off, and the city began to explode. “Everybody came in here because of the increase in the defense budget, and they all made a lot of money,” former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci tells The Daily Beast.

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Today Washington has a unique band of 14 billionaires who through real estate, technology, and wealth management have changed the philanthropic scene over the last quarter-century and re-gilded the gilded age. Despite the volatility of the stock market and the recession, the upper echelon of the metropolitan area seems awash in cash. For the affluent, there are endless benefits, events, and red-carpet soirees—and everyone is expected to give big. “It’s amazing,” says a member of the Washington symphony board. “There were always wealthy donors in Washington, but nothing like you see now. Expectations are enormous.”

Indeed, “expectations” is the buzz word for entrée into the world of prestigious Washington boards. According to various sources, the price tag for a seat on The Corcoran Gallery of Art, The Phillips Collection, the National Symphony, or the National Opera can run anywhere from $25,000 a year on up into the stratosphere. The opera, reports a well-placed donor, recently upped the ante from $35,000 to $50,000, and offers its own special cachet: a chance to schmooze with opera legend Placido Domingo, director of the company. Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg, a prominent member of the opera board, tells The Daily Beast that dwindling revenues and contributions are “pressuring board members to be more generous than they have been before.”

The Kennedy Center requires political finagling—a presidential appointment and, though the subject is hush-hush, seriously deep pockets. (Just this year, Betsy and Dick Devos, trustees from Michigan, pledged $22 million to endow an art management program.) At Brookings, a think tank, many members are appointed because of who they are and the expertise they can bring to the institution, but without an exalted name or lofty title, aspirants can expect to part with big bucks. The National Gallery of Art is in its own particular realm. Expert at building special relationships with the pedigreed and supremely well-to-do, the gallery requires no down payment for a seat at the table but does expect to be remembered generously in a will—a Picasso or a Rembrandt, along with a hefty financial bequest.

David Rubenstein, 60, the new chair of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, is a prime example of the Washington boom. As co-founder of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group, for which Frank Carlucci was an early adviser, Rubenstein gobbled up a number of undervalued defense companies in the 1980s. The firm, named for the swanky New York hotel, now has assets in excess of $90 billion, and Rubenstein’s personal worth is estimated at $2.5 billion. Ranked No. 147 on Forbes’ list of the super-wealthy, he is one the richest men in the world and is known as a workaholic who rarely sleeps, constantly circumnavigating the globe in his Gulfstream 5.

An eclectic philanthropist who sits on 30 boards, Rubenstein has given away countless millions: $3.5 million to the Kennedy Center, $10 million to Lincoln Center, and $15 million to Harvard University, to name just a few. He is also a history buff who has purchased a rare copy of the Declaration Independence, now at the State Department, and a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, at the White House. On a whim, he paid $21.3 million for the 713-year-old Magna Carta and gave it to the National Archives, “to ensure it stayed in the U.S.”

Rubenstein’s mantra: “If you have money, you can spend it, you can save it, or you can give it away. I bought all the things I need to buy.”

Tied at No. 367 on the world’s richest list with $2.5 billion apiece are the reclusive Rales brothers, Mitchell and Steven, both District natives in their 50s who have built Danaher Corp. into a formidable industrial and technology conglomerate. Mitchell, a noted collector of modern art including works by Rothko, de Kooning, and Serra, has turned part of his lavish Bethesda estate into an invitation-only museum, called Glenstone, and sits on the boards of the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum.

The gallery requires no down payment for a seat at the table but does expect to be remembered generously in a will—a Picasso or a Rembrandt, along with a hefty financial bequest.

Steven, also a contemporary art aficionado, is a big supporter of local children’s charities and his alma mater, DePauw University. He also has found a niche in Hollywood and is listed as producer of The Darjeeling Limited and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Although the brothers are wooed by every nonprofit in the area, the low-key duo remains relatively unknown, has no social ambition, and eschews the limelight, along with any type of personal publicity.

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Far more visible is well-heeled entrepreneur and Atlantic Media publisher David G. Bradley, who owns The National Journal, The Atlantic, and Hotline. In 1979, a 26-year-old Bradley founded the Research Council of Washington. Over the years he zeroed in on health care and finance, and in 1997 he sold the company for more than $300 million. He is known for hosting monthly ultra-exclusive off-the-record dinners—a Valhalla of insiders, top journalists, foreign leaders, and White House officials—in his glass-enclosed office at the Watergate. “It’s a joy for me,” Bradley has said. “I launched it for the romance of it. It’s more book club than it is clubhouse.”

Bradley and his wife, Katherine, launched CityBridge Foundation to help improve the quality and expand the capacity of D.C. public schools. He also has served on the boards of Georgetown University and Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, and is a mainstay of Meadowbrook Stables in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where he grew up and where after school he worked as a groom.

Two of Washington’s most influential donors are Roger and Vicki Sant. In 1981 Roger co-founded AES, which evolved into a Fortune 500 global energy company with assets of $34 billion. He is now chairman emeritus; several years ago, Forbes estimated his worth at $1.7 billion. With a myriad of interests, the Sants’ generosity encompasses art, environment, conservation, and wildlife—which includes donating $800,000 to bring two new Chinese pandas to the National Zoo. Together the Sants established the Summit Foundation, targeted at local and international grant-making in the fields of population and the environment. But arguably their most spectacular gift is the $15 million-plus Sant Ocean Hall they donated in 2008 to the Museum of Natural History.

Roger has been chairman of the executive committee of the Smithsonian Board of Regents and chair of the World Wildlife Fund, and he now serves on their boards along with a collection of other nonprofits. Vicki is president of the National Gallery of Art and was previously chair of The Phillips Collection. They are also serious art collectors—works by Vuillard, Bonnard, and Denis decorate their red-brick colonial Georgetown home.

Another individual willing to dispense largesse and grab attention is Florida transplant Adrienne Arsht, who in 2008 donated $30 million to restore the bankrupt Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. In recognition, the center was renamed in her honor. “People say giving is an unselfish act,” says Arsht in a telephone interview, “but the joy you get from giving is so exciting.”

A lawyer and business executive who was on the guest list for Wednesday night’s state dinner at the White House, Arsht is no stranger to the capital’s high life. She lived in Washington in the 1970s and early ’80s and left to become chairman of TotalBank of Miami, which was sold to Banco Popular Espanol for $300 million in 2007. The Chronicle of Philanthropy ranked Arsht No. 39 on its 2008 list of America’s 50 biggest donors. Since re-establishing a beachhead in Washington, she has donated $5 million to the Kennedy Center to create The Adrienne Arsht Musical Theater Fund and is now treasurer of the Board of Trustees. She is also a major donor to the University of Miami, The Metropolitan Opera, and The Washington National Opera.

A self-styled believer in the “diversity of audiences,” she is willing to put her money where her interests lie. “The arts are very important,” she says. “They make a community, and no man is an island. Politicians pass through, but the arts remain. They sustain us all.”

David Rubenstein, it seems, would agree. He told a gaggle of members at his formal introduction to the Kennedy Center a couple of weeks ago that he planned to broaden the base by attracting a younger and larger variety of patrons, even if it meant chipping in himself.

According to a source who was present, as Rubenstein exited the meeting he quipped, “Remember, money makes the world go around.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.