The Towbes Family Endowment Secures the Future of Dance at the

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

As Santa Barbara’s population continues to grow, its art scene
blossoms and shifts, and sites once at the center of the city’s
cultural life sometimes make way for newer venues. Not so, though,
the Lobero Theatre, where live performances have been staged since
1873. The Lobero is California’s oldest continuously operating
theater and remains at the heart of the city’s arts programming,
hosting many of Santa Barbara’s most prestigious visiting artists
as well as scores of community performances. Times may change, but
the Lobero remains, an architectural treasure and a vital part of
Santa Barbara’s cultural life.

Last June, the Lobero Theatre Foundation announced a series of
four endowments that secured arts programming in perpetuity,
starting with the Towbes Family Endowment for Dance. The dance
endowment is one of four bequests planned by the Towbes family as
part of their Lobero Endowment for Excellence, the aim of which is
to secure the future of quality arts programming at the Lobero
Theatre. Initial gifts of $1 million have also been earmarked for
American music, classical music, and theater. The proceeds from
these investments will go directly to ensuring high-quality arts
programming at the Lobero in the future.

The dance endowment was the first of these bequests to be
launched, with the theater’s first-ever official season of dance
kicking off last summer with an inaugural performance in June by
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Hell’s Kitchen Dance. This season also
brought the world’s most accomplished tap dancer, Savion Glover, to
the Lobero at the beginning of October, and it continues with two
shows in early November: the surreal, multimedia work of Moses
Pendleton’s MOMIX, and the visually magnificent Mexican folk dances
of Ballet Folklórico. The season closes in March of next year when
Quebec’s Cirque Éloize brings its unusual brand of theatrical
circus artistry to town.

“There has been dance at the Lobero as long as there has been
the Lobero,” the foundation’s Executive Director David Asbell said
recently, “But we’ve been more actively programming dance in the
last four or five years. This is the first year we’ve had a
dedicated dance season, and it’s going to continue with at least
two or three major dance events every year.”

Unlike some endowments that act primarily to shore up arts
organizations in times of financial hardship, the Towbes endowment
aims to provide the means for expanding dance programming at the
Lobero, and for taking a lead role in influencing the future of
dance in Santa Barbara. “This endowment will allow the Lobero to
have innovative programming, especially for dance, in perpetuity,”
Asbell said. “We’re not a museum, we’re a theater. While it’s a
beautiful theater, people come here to see the action on the stage,
and the idea is to endow that action. We want to pick important
artists — artists who have made some kind of contribution to their

The artists and companies taking part in the Lobero’s first
official dance season have little in common — they range from solo
artists like Glover to large ensembles such as Ballet Folklórico,
and from those like MOMIX who use extensive props and special
effects to those like Hell’s Kitchen who rely primarily on
physicality and technique. If there is a common thread, it’s that
none are classical ballet companies. But Asbell isn’t particularly
concerned with whether a given season is full of commonalities or
differences, whether it’s more traditional or contemporary — he’s
more interested in the quality of the work, and what it contributes
to Santa Barbara’s existing dance scene.

In terms of selecting the best companies for upcoming seasons,
Asbell says he’ll consult with Towbes every year. “We’ll be talking
to Michael about how we plan to use his funds — we see it as a
collaborative process. The concept for the endowment for dance came
from Michael. His first wife, Gail, had a tremendous love of dance,
and he was the one who picked dance as the art form where he would
like to set up his first endowment.” Asbell has something up his
sleeve for next season, but he’s giving nothing away. “We already
have a few ideas,” he said. “Suffice to say there will be very
strong contemporary aspects to what we’re doing.”

∆ ∆ ∆ ∆ ∆ ∆ ∆ ∆

What follows is a short chat with Michael Towbes, who shared his
thoughts on the future of dance at the Lobero.

Why do you feel dance programming in particular is important?
First of all, I personally enjoy dance a great deal. Secondly, I
think that among all the performing arts it’s probably the one that
has the greatest difficulty in terms of fundraising and
support — people aren’t as aware of dance, and other areas seem to
gather more support.

Why do you think that is? I think at least part of it is that
people have a sense that dance is about young women dancing about
on their toes in tutus with no dialogue so people can’t understand
it. There’s so much exciting dance out there, but that old image is
difficult to overcome.

Why did you choose the Lobero for your endowment? I think the
Lobero has a great stage for dance. It’s a relatively small
theater, and dance there is very intimate —  you’re right there;
you can really enjoy dance programs. I feel it’s important to
support the Lobero — it’s a great treasure in Santa Barbara and one
of my favorite places. When the new Granada Theatre opens it will
be bigger, but a lot of companies will prefer the intimacy of the

What are some of your favorite dance companies? I like the local
companies that we have. State Street Ballet does wonderful work,
and Summerdance does a great job. There are so many interesting and
entertaining groups that perform in Santa Barbara.

What’s your hope for the future of dance at the Lobero and for
dance in Santa Barbara? I think the Lobero plays a very important
role in the performing arts. I think they’re doing very well now,
and I hope they continue to do even better in the future. I think
it’s important to support all types of dance, not just one form. I
like most of it.


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