If you’ve enjoyed the Annenberg Beach House or the Annenberg Space for Photography or The Wallis Performing Arts Center you might think these civic amenities owe their presence simply to a generous check from a well-heeled philanthropic organization, the Annenberg Foundation.
But they were borne of long, complex and sometimes wrenching processes that involved navigating the public and private sphere, often involving multiple players and competing interests. And a pivotal member of that process was Leonard Aube.
Leonard Aube was Executive Director of the Annenberg Foundation for twelve years until last week, when, on Wednesday, he died after a battle with cancer.
Before his untimely death Aube, born 1959, had become, writes Wallis Annenberg in a letter posted on the Foundation web site, “a crucial partner to me. His joy in serving was inspiring. His boundless energy and enthusiasm were a wonder to behold. Leonard’s work at this foundation has been extraordinary.”
I got to know Leonard Aube a little in the last two years, while working as guest curator on Sink Or Swim, an exhibition at the Annenberg Space For Photography. On the few occasions we met — he was busy with many projects — he was extremely cordial, focused, and chipper. But I learned the extent of his “boundless energy and enthusiasm” when, one day, Leonard invited me into his corner office on the 10th Floor of the CAA Building in Century City, and walked me through many of projects he had developed on behalf of the Foundation.
Although Leonard — noted by all that met him for his modesty — repeatedly credited the foundation’s Trustees (Wallis Annenberg, Lauren Bon, Charles Annenberg Weingarten and Gregory Annenberg Weingarten), he happened to mention in passing that when they worked with the City of Santa Monica to create the Annenberg Beach House, below, he personally attended 200 neighborhood meetings.
Two hundred neighborhood meetings! Most people would be drained by one.
Was this usual for a CEO, whose role was to oversee the nine-figure annual giving of one of the country’s largest family foundations, to be so directly engaged with the sometimes irksome process of public engagement?
My sense is that it’s not.
But Leonard Aube, who grew up in the South Bay and whose first job was parking cars at a Dodge dealership in Torrance, brought a humility and street smarts to his position, coupled with a polite tenacity.
Determined to realize the vision for the beach house, for example, that was initially resisted by nearby residents, Leonard told me in a later interview with him that outreach was the only way.
“Really, there’s no substitute. You can have an appreciation for the fears and anxieties that people have. And we’ve so democratized our entitlement process that if you really want to be involved in creating world-class community space, I think you just have to engage in it. I don’t mind sitting on the floor in people’s living rooms, which we often would do at one point, though frankly some of the neighbors north and south of the property pooled their resources and hired one of the big downtown law firms and sued the project to kind of kill it.”
Leonard spent many hours, “sitting in people’s living rooms, hanging out with them, sitting on a slab of concrete on the sand,” for projects ranging from a universally accessible tree house in Torrance to the Performing Arts Center to projects that did not come to fruition such as a proposed Visitors Center in Playa Vista.
He was also the ever-cheerful face of the foundation at public events like its summer of Country Music concerts, for which he donned his cowboy boots.
This kind of engagement was far from the “fine print of my position description when I came and I thought I was going to be much more of an administrator,” recalled Leonard, who joined the Annenberg Foundation in 2003 following 15 years as senior vice president of development and marketing at the California Science Center.
His public engagement was also part and parcel of the Foundation’s growing role in creating civic, “place-based initiatives” along with overseeing the giving of grants, writes Wallis Annenberg, of “over $2 billion to more than 2,500 non-profits around the world” (KCRW is among the Foundation’s grantees.)
A few weeks ago, Wallis Annenberg, knowing the gravity of his illness, hosted an event to honor Leonard.
Hundreds of friends, colleagues, civic leaders, his wife Robin, children Kyle and Katie, his siblings, parents and many members of his extended family gathered for the unveiling of Leonard Aube Way at the site of AltaSea, the planned oceanic research center and public destination that was a project dear to Leonard; he was a lifelong scuba diver whose career trajectory had including working as an executive at Marineland of the Pacific amusement park. He had even spent some time as a professional marine photographer.
The Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, was one of the speakers. Afterwards I asked him about Leonard’s role in the creation of civic space. He responded: “Leonard has been this angel, this catalyst, this visionary, he’s understood the intersection between ideas, space and place.”
He added, “I think in philanthropy people either want to micromanage or just want to dispassionately give. He realizes he has a role to play that is more than resources; it’s about management and he’s done a beautiful job with it.”
About the dedication of the street, Leonard Aube was characteristically modest, “I guess it really is a tribute to the good work and the patterns of investment in community life that the foundation has made and I just feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have been a small part of it.”
RIP Leonard J. Aube 1959 — 2015