The Los Angeles branch of the Annenberg Foundation, a family philanthropy that has given away $3.6 billion over the past two decades and still has $2 billion in reserve, perches a few floors up from the powerhouse Creative Artists Agency in a gleaming Century City tower. The office is a neutral-tone study in corporate beige, but the woman who steers the foundation from its glass boardroom is anything but bland. Wallis Annenberg, in her 60s, the only surviving child of the late press lord and billionaire philanthropist Walter Annenberg, is largely unknown outside of nonprofit circles, but she is a stealth patron of the Los Angeles arts scene and, despite her low profile, a Technicolor personality. Among the many recipients of her largesse, Annenberg enjoys almost royal deference, yet when she sits down for a rare interview, she speaks less like a cultivated grande dame than a worldly pragmatist—she’s a taking-care-of-business kind of leader whose business just happens to be giving away a family fortune.
“Every cause sounds wonderful,” she says when asked how she sorts through the countless calls for her time and money. “[But] it’s like reading a real-estate ad. You get there and you’re like, ‘Where’s the wood-burning fireplace?’”
Annenberg, who grew up in Washington, D.C., but has lived in Los Angeles for some 30 years, became the foundation’s vice president upon her father’s death in 2002. (His widow and Wallis’s stepmother, Leonore, is president, although, at 90, her role is increasingly emeritus.) With little fanfare, Annenberg has slowly but surely emerged from his shadow and, as she has directed $65 million in foundation funds toward cultural institutions in her adopted hometown, quietly become one of the biggest cultural benefactors on the West Coast.
“I’m very partial to Los Angeles,” she acknowledges, before bluntly pointing out the obvious fact that museum directors all over the country are very partial to her. (She recently gave $5 million to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for initiatives such as “audience development.”) “I will admit that many institutions have sent gold chariots for me. It’s very nice, but it doesn’t impress me. I have a knack that I inherited from my father: I can pretty well size up a situation in about two seconds. I don’t waste too much time.”
Like the evening she was having dinner with Michael Govan, the Wallis Annenberg director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she is a trustee. Their conversation turned to photography, her artistic passion, and they discussed a major collection assembled in Los Angeles by
Marjorie and Leonard Vernon—a history that includes vintage masterpieces by Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Steichen—that was about to be sold.