Effective Family Philanthropy: The Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation


Grand Finale: A Family Foundation Focused on Free Concerts Announces its Spend Down

On a warm Sunday in July, about 50 people sat on the grassy lawn under towering evergreens facing the Levitt Pavilion near downtown Los Angeles, listening to the band Los Del Momento play a modern take on Mexican regional Sierreño music. On stage, the sun glinted off a shiny tuba. On the lawn, a few women danced together in the grass. A small boy chased a tiny dog between the trees. A middle-aged, mustachioed man in a straw cowboy hat sat on a folding chair next to a teenager in a baseball cap and earring, both gently moving their shoulders to the beat.

People of all ages, from all walks of life coming together to enjoy a high-quality, free outdoor concert — this is the vision of the Levitt Foundation, a family philanthropy dedicated to uniting people through music. Since the first Levitt Pavilion opened in 1974, the foundation has expanded to support 45 communities, bringing music to nearly 1 million people across the country. The L.A. bandshell, located in historic MacArthur Park, was originally constructed in 1957, renovated as a Levitt Pavilion in 2007, and has been hosting a robust series of free summer concerts ever since.

This kind of community-based arts funding can have positive ripple effects throughout the neighborhood, including in this part of L.A., which struggles with poverty, addiction and disinvestment. In many cases, these successful concert series have led cities to invest in public arts projects they might otherwise have ignored. They also generate enough foot traffic to support new local businesses and improve community safety by drawing people out at night.

This November, the Levitt Foundation announced plans to spend down its endowment by 2041, driven both by a desire to increase its impact and by the fact that neither Levitt Hirsch, now 72, nor her brother has children. Though Levitt Hirsch is close to her stepchildren and step grandchildren, they are not planning to take over the foundation. In practice, the spend-down will mean giving away more than $150 million in 20 years, all of it to support free public music and its power to bridge divides, revitalize neighborhoods, and, as the foundation’s November 30 release about the spend-down put it, fuel “the movement for free live music in public spaces as a key driver for equitable, healthy and thriving communities.”

To learn more about the foundation’s history and future, I visited Elizabeth (Liz) Levitt Hirsch at her airy, art-filled Beverly Hills home. She is chairman of the board and the daughter of founders Mortimer and Mimi Levitt. Levitt Hirsch took over the foundation from her father in the early 2000s, created its signature community-led, venture philanthropy approach, and hired the professional staff who now run it. We spoke about the foundation, its mission and track record, and the decision to spend down.

During the conversation, Levitt Hirsch talked about her parents’ difficult childhoods as immigrants and refugees and her own far more secure upbringing in Manhattan. This background contributed to her keen awareness of the divide between young people with means and those “who are born with less and whose opportunities are limited almost by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” as she put it. “There are many more doors that can open for a young person whose parents aren’t struggling to pay the bills.”

Being involved in her family foundation’s successful efforts to create shared community spaces has enabled her to feel part of bridging divides and helping to right historical wrongs in a personal, hands-on way. Supporting concerts “allows me to open my heart to everyone, regardless of their means.”

Levitt Hirsch also said that she learned to do philanthropy in part by watching her mother’s hospitality and expansive, instinctive generosity, with no “upstairs/downstairs” mentality. Levitt Hirsch struck me as possessing a similarly natural, easygoing graciousness. After our interview, she asked where I was headed next. I said I was looking for a market to buy short grain rice. “Oh, I think I have some of that! Let me just give you what I have,” she said. And so we were off to the kitchen, looking through her larder. In the end, I bought my own rice — IP does not accept gifts, and besides, she was out. But this spontaneous generosity and lack of rigid boundaries or formal posturing struck me as fundamental to Liz Levitt Hirsch and to the spirit of this second-generation family foundation captivated by the power of music.

Dress (others) for success

Founder Mortimer Levitt grew up in Brooklyn, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. When he was 16, his father moved out and Mortimer quit school to help support his mother and two younger brothers. He found work in the textile industry, eventually becoming a fabric salesperson. He used his extra money to buy “flashy” clothes for himself and discovered that off-the-rack shirts don’t fit well, according to the foundation’s website (which offers a vivid profile of this iconoclastic, spirited man). Levitt Hirsch said, for the most part, her father did not like to talk about the stress and economic struggles of his childhood.


He did, however, talk about visits to the Coney Island amusement park, where his father worked as a street vendor, and being unable to go on rides or see shows because of the cost. This childhood memory helped fuel his later desire to provide free outdoor concerts for everyone, no ticket needed.

According to family lore and his own prolific writing, Mortimer wasn’t able to finish high school, but found success by capitalizing on his intelligence and “eye for fashion,” said Levitt Hirsch. “He knew how to make a man look good. He had a sensitivity for fabrics, having sold textiles, what kind of collar would work well with a man. This was a gift my father had.”

He also had a gift for business. He started a Manhattan menswear company in 1937, offering custom-made shirts for $2.15 — and requiring customers to order four at a time. With this business policy in place and high-quality, flattering shirts on offer, his company began generating millions of dollars in revenue within four years.

Called the Custom Shop, it eventually grew to include 70 locations nationwide, providing shirts for everyone from President Lyndon B. Johnson and Clark Gable to ordinary working men. Mortimer channeled profits from apparel into commercial real estate, buying properties around the country, some of which the family still owns. In his later years, he threw himself into a huge array of creative, philanthropic and business activities, and wrote five books, including the 1981 New York Times Book-of-the-Month Club selection, “The Executive Look: How to Get It — How to Keep It.”

While Mortimer appreciated the art of fashion, Annemarie “Mimi” Gratzinger Levitt grew up surrounded by high art in Vienna. In 1938, with Hitler on the rise, her family fled to New York for safety. “They were there long enough to see the atrocities. She had seen the Anschluss [forced unification of Austria with Germany],” said Levitt Hirsch, noting that her mother also did not like to talk about her past, and refused to return to Vienna. As an adult, Mimi worked in the arts, including for the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. She met Mortimer in New York in 1947 at an art opening, and they married the following year. Mimi had a warm spirit, said Levitt Hirsch, going out of her way to welcome everyone, from the guests at a party to those serving the food. “She treated people with dignity and thoughtfulness. Everyone mattered.”

Finding a philanthropic focus

When Liz Levitt Hirsch was born, Mortimer and Mimi Levitt were living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, regularly hosting parties and contributing to a variety of causes. Mimi worked as a committed volunteer and activist, helping kids improve their reading skills in Harlem and, in the 1970s, leading the effort to stop Robert Moses from razing the Upper East Side’s historic brownstones and Gilded Age mansions. Mortimer and Mimi formed the Levitt Foundation in 1966. At the time, the vision was to support arts, culture and education more generally. The current concert focus of the Levitt Foundation evolved organically.

In 1961, Mortimer and Mimi Levitt bought a summer house in Westport, Connecticut. About a decade later, a group of Westport residents began advocating for an outdoor performance venue. The town donated a local landfill to the cause, but the community needed money to transform it into a suitable space. When the fundraising committee approached the Levitts for help, they immediately gave to the cause.

They donated more than any other family, as it turned out. At the opening of the bandshell, the Westport mayor introduced it as the “Levitt Pavilion,” which was news to the Levitts. The pavilion went on to become a huge asset to the community, a fact that really stuck with Mortimer.

When he sold the Custom Shop in 1997, at age 90, and put the proceeds into the Levitt Foundation, he had the Westport Levitt Pavilion in mind. He decided he wanted to channel the foundation’s now much-larger endowment into the development of 25 similar Levitt Pavilions in communities across the country. Each one would host 50 admission-free, outdoor concerts a year. He began writing letters to city mayors, trying to get them excited about this idea. A few years later, he asked Levitt Hirsh, who was living in L.A., to get involved and get ready to take over.

Developing a unique model

Levitt Hirsch loves music. Every time I spoke to her, she was either on her way to a concert or talking excitedly about one she’d just heard. She has a degree in music history from Scripps College and experience working in the music industry. After marrying hospitality designer Howard Hirsch in the early 1980s, she chaired highly successful fundraising events and helped with strategic planning for arts organizations such as the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Joffrey Ballet. By the time Mortimer asked her to lead the foundation, she had a strong track record of personal philanthropy and of organizing for the arts.

One of her first jobs in her new role at the family foundation was meeting with the mayor of Pasadena, who had received one of the senior Levitt’s letters. The mayor sent three people to Westport to check out the pavilion, and then traveled to Manhattan to meet with the family. As it happened, Pasadena already had a bandshell, built in 1931. It had fallen into disrepair, and was later renovated to appear in a TV commercial. Levitt Hirsch checked out the spot, and Mortimer approved this slightly different approach to pavilion-raising.

Then followed a whole lot of networking, enthusiasm-raising, and formulating of a personal type of venture philanthropy — basically creating something from nothing by leveraging catalytic capital and working with communities. The foundation never takes a top-down approach, said Sharon Yazowski, Levitt Foundation’s CEO. Rather, the family’s community-driven experience in Westport led to a model of nurturing connections to build public/private partnerships, and using their financial investment — what Levitt Hirsch called the “Levitt Leverage” — to create momentum.

It was hard going at first, as creative placemaking was not a trend at the time. The Pasadena Levitt Pavilion opened in 2003, and Levitt Hirsch evolved into a kind of donor-activist, traveling to cities, proselytizing about the benefits of free community concerts, and meeting with community organizers, leaders and assorted potential stakeholders. “Back then, nobody had heard of the Levitt Pavilion, and the reach of the internet was not what it is today. I was out trying to market this concept, essentially,” Levitt Hirsch said.

Sometimes, a person involved in one Levitt Pavilion sparked the idea for another. A musician who played at the Levitt Pavilion in Pasadena made a pitch for the city of Memphis as a future site — specifically to bring back the historic, then-vacant amphitheater in Overton Park, a 1936 Works Progress Administration site. Overton Park had hosted the first-ever Elvis Presley performance and other legendary performers including Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Isaac Hayes and Lisa Marie Presley. It seemed like a perfect place for a Levitt Pavilion.

Levitt Hirsh visited Memphis, started networking in the city, and generated strong interest. But the project stalled when the city’s parks director lost his job. Meanwhile, Levitt Hirsch got involved in the MacArthur Park project in L.A., which became the third Levitt venue. Then in 2005, a plan arose in Memphis to replace Overton Park with a parking lot. This threat ignited fervor within the philanthropic community of Memphis and generated new support for a local nonprofit, called Save the Shell, dedicated to the bandshell. “Then I had the connections, the leadership and the threat,” said Levitt Hirsch, noting that it often takes some outside force for a pavilion project to materialize.

The fourth Levitt venue finally opened in Memphis in 2008. Levitt Hirsch described driving up to the Memphis pavilion as a crane operator was lifting the name to go across its arc. “It was chills. Chills,” she said. “I was so happy about the transformation, seeing this beautiful realization.”

The inquiry is the intervention

Every pavilion has a unique story, and often, an igniting factor — the threat of destruction, or alternatively, a neighborhood revitalization effort — that moves it from conversation to completion.

“A lot of times, it’s part of a ‘chain of change’ that’s already underway,” said Vanessa Silberman, Levitt Foundation executive vice president. In Pasadena, for example, Old Town Pasadena was being redeveloped in the early 2000s, a project that included opening a new metro line serving the area. “There was all this momentum in that part of Pasadena,” said Silberman.

Today, the Memphis site is one of the only Depression-era bandshells still active. It also no longer relies on Levitt funding for any of its work. The Levitt Foundation funds the construction and renovation of new bandshells, and each Levitt Pavillion runs as an independent nonprofit. With grant support from the foundation, they employ their own staff and set up maintenance and programming as is appropriate for each city. In 2022, a group of local and regional funders assumed responsibility for the (now renamed) Overton Park Shell.

“This shows that we can be that spark of support, and then it can fly on its own,” said Silberman. “In one of the most segregated cities, it’s a rainbow on the lawn. We’ve seen this across the country — these Levitt Pavilions healing communities that are segregated. It’s this place where people feel welcome and included and are coming together from all sides.”

The foundation opened five more bandshells between 2007 and 2019, including those in Arlington, Texas; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver and Dayton, Ohio. More than half of the pavilions Levitt has developed are now operating on their own.

Fine tuning the instrument of giving

As the pavilions proliferated, the foundation also professionalized. In 2009, Levitt Hirsch hired Sharon Yazowski, the foundation’s first professional staff member. Yazowski was serving as the executive director of Levitt Los Angeles and working with Levitt Hirsch in that capacity at the time. “I said, ‘If you want to professionalize and scale this nationally, I’m the lady to do it.’” Yazowski said.

Yazowski focused on coordinating the structure, funding, reporting, branding, and establishing programming guidelines. She hired Silberman in 2012. The foundation grew as the field of creative placemaking was gaining momentum. Today, it supports two main programs: seven Levitt venues and their concert series, and a separate music series program in small to midsize towns and cities without permanent pavilions, called Levitt AMP Grant Awards. This second program is slated to bring free concerts to 33 communities in 2024.

Levitt Foundation also just launched a two-year pilot program inspired by the AMP series, focused on big cities. Called the VIBE Music Series, it has awarded grants to nonprofits in Chicago, Indianapolis and Oakland for 2024/2025. The foundation also funds and conducts research on the benefits of arts investment in public spaces and arts in community, and supports festivals, events and “field-building initiatives to expand access and nurture more equitable music ecosystems,” as Silberman put it.

In 2019, Mimi Levitt died, leaving her assets to the foundation, more than quadrupling its size. With more money to spend and no succession plan, the foundation began a period of serious self-reflection. How could it best deploy its funds to make the most impact now and into the future?

Spending down to spread the sound

For most leaders of family foundations we’ve covered, family involvement is an important part of the future vision. Some lean on the foundation to help keep family members connected, like the O’Neill Foundation. Others rely on the foundation to instill good values in younger generations, like the Eisner Foundation. The Levitt Foundation’s decision to spend down, first proposed by the staff, is part of a small but growing movement in philanthropy, as staff told me.

There are plenty of good reasons to spend down assets, including an increasing sense of urgency around issues such as climate change, a desire for more impact now, an interest in witnessing the results of the work while living, and the current, sometimes critical, “changing perceptions around philanthropy,” as a 2024 post by Cambridge Associates, a financial services firm serving institutional investors, put it.


For the Levitt Foundation, the spend-down will facilitate a few key aims. The Levitt Foundation’s concert series have created positive changes in the communities where they happen; more money can mean bigger changes, and more of them through a significant increase in the number of community grants given. As Yazowski said in a blog post conversation with Levitt Hirsch about the spend-down, the foundation had been giving away about 6 to 8% of its endowment annually. By 2019, they found themselves saying no to a record number of grant requests in order to preserve and grow the endowment.

“We held back on two $25,000 grants, a total of $50,000, a relatively small amount for our overall endowment, though it could have been a change-making investment for each of those communities,” Yazowski said. “The reality of that decision stung and really lingered. In the months that followed, we found ourselves asking, ‘What kind of funder do we want to be?’”

Some staff I spoke to compared music’s transformative power within communities to that of early childhood interventions for individuals. “We believe future problems are caused by inadequately addressed current problems, many of which are exacerbated because we do not put enough resources into them now,” said Yazowski. More community concert series will let the foundation create more interventions of real scale, help drive the national creative placemaking movement, and bolster the foundation’s DEI aims.

The foundation will also use the funds to continue its research on the impact of free public concerts on community development, place attachment, social capital and economic vitality, and disseminate findings. “Part of our legacy will be in the shared learnings we make available to all, a step-by-step guide for doing this work that will be used by local governments, nonprofits, chambers of commerce, educational institutions — those who want to elevate the overall wellbeing of their community,” said Levitt Hirsch.

She said she believes her parents would approve. “One of the joys of being a spend-down foundation is being able to realize this impact in our lifetime. I get to see the intentions of my family being carried out, and the joy and positive change being created by expanding our grantmaking.”