Laurie Tisch: Shining a Light Where She Can

The Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund aims to improve the well-being of New Yorkers who need a boost

| 29 Apr 2022 | 10:14

Enthusiastic giver is the term that comes to mind. Speaking passionately about project after project, Laurie Tisch’s commitment to New York City and the well-being of fellow New Yorkers is quickly evident.

“We facilitated I think 26 murals in every single public hospital,” Tisch said of the NYC Health + Hospital’s Community Mural Project that her foundation, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund, partnered with over several years to completion in 2021. “It wasn’t just ‘someone is going to come in and paint these murals’ – each mural was a total community project – doctors, patients, people in the community” with a “big ribbon cutting” after each project.

And regarding the 14 recent New York City-based grantees selected in the foundation’s newly launched Arts & Mental Health program within the ongoing Arts in Health initiative, Tisch said, “I can’t believe there were one or two hundred [cultural organizations] that never came on our radar screen” that were out there doing “unbelievable work” across all five boroughs. More than 120 organizations had responded to the Fund’s Request for Proposals to receive support to “increase access to mental health services for communities with long-standing health disparities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

That is why Tisch created the Illumination Fund – to help. Founded in 2007, the focus is to improve the wellbeing of New York City residents who need a boost in areas ranging from access to healthy food or the arts or arts education or health care. And in some ways, Tisch has been preparing for this her whole life.

The Tisch name is on New York City universities and hospitals, at cultural centers, and museums, from NYU to Columbia and Lincoln Center, and numerous other venues. Yet, while she watched generosity modeled by her parents, the philanthropy they practiced was new, with no fixed patterns of giving.

“People think my family goes back many generations, but it doesn’t,” the Upper East Side resident said. “My father (Preston Robert Tisch) and his brother (Laurence Tisch) were self-made, so we didn’t grow up with great wealth or anything, they made it as we were growing up.”

But they were always generous. “They made the money, and they gave it where they wanted,” without the formal structure of a foundation.

Tisch said her mother, Joan Tisch, was involved in public service, volunteering, and was a huge role model for not just her family which include two brothers, but also for her daughters as they grew up and who now serve on boards and support various causes.

“It’s just kind of in their DNA,” she said of her daughters’ public service. “That’s what you do when you can.”

Tisch’s foray into the arts did not come so naturally, however.

“I didn’t know much about art,” she said referring to paintings mostly “It’s not like I grew up with it, and being in Ann Arbor (at the University of Michigan) in the late 60s/70s, always having kind of a liberal, political bent, I thought it was elitist, it wasn’t in my vocabulary.”

A lot has changed since then. She now sits on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art, has an American art collection, and galleries around the city boasts her name.

The gradual immersion in the arts started in the early eighties when she got involved “with this teeny tiny little organization called Manhattan Laboratory Museum/GAME (Growth through Art and Museum Experience) started by a brilliantly creative woman (Bette Korman), who, with a small grant, was taking shopping bags of artifacts to classrooms because the arts were cut to New York City public schools.”

This tiny organization became the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, and she is still involved there. It was that exposure, she said, where she started learning “about the democracy of the arts, the power of the arts” that led her to continue to embrace art-based initiatives.

In the mid-90s she was asked to chair the newly funded Center for Arts in Education initiative designed to restore arts programs to the public schools. Hesitant at first because of the sheer scope of the responsibility, she was eventually convinced to accept the offer is now chair emeritus of the Center.

And how does she find the time to run a foundation, sit on seven boards, and maintain a busy social calendar?

“I try to keep things fairly simple,” she says, by prioritizing and surrounding herself with a small group of people she can trust, such as her three-person staff at the Illumination Fund. She says of executive director, Rick Luftglass, “he is very, very good [at what he does] and doesn’t flood me with every detail.” That way, she still finds time to be an athlete, gets to see her six grandchildren – and make all the birthday parties – and stay highly engaged with grantees and partners of the foundation.

Sharing her resources with New Yorkers who may otherwise not have access to activities, spaces or arts education is itself its own reward she shares.

“To see some needles moved and be surrounded by some of the brightest people that I know – that’s part of the payback,” she said. “How interesting have they made my life.”

“To see some needles moved and be surrounded by some of the brightest people that I know – that’s part of the payback. How interesting have they made my life.” Laurie M. Tisch, of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund