Because of his own passion for bluegrass music, billionaire philanthropist Warren Hellman frequently referred to the free SF music festival he founded and started funding 15 years ago as "the world's most selfish gift." But later this month, when hundreds of thousands of festival-goers descend on Golden Gate Park for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, held partly in a field that now bears Hellman's name, the bluegrass lover won't be there to enjoy his own generosity. In 2011, at age 77, Hellman died of leukemia. Since his death, the festival has only grown, now spanning three days and booking many first-class acts. But a widely reported, often repeated notion — that Hellman endowed the festival forever, or even at all — turns out to be more folklore than fact. As Warren Hellman's son Mick Hellman tells SFist, "The 'endowment in perpetuity?' It's just a matter of fact that does not exist."
"Hardly Strictly Bluegrass will return to Golden Gate Park this October and for many Octobers to come," Rolling Stone wrote in 2012, "Hellman set up an endowment to ensure that the festival would continue long after his death." It's an assertion that appears in many publications, including SFist, and which you're likely to hear — this article notwithstanding — while enjoying the music itself. In fact, as Mick first told SF Sounds, his father "left all of his estate to charity. There are funds for it, there are resources, [depending on what] will go to other charities or other important projects. It’s not technically endowed, but it’s secured for a long time.”
The Hellman Foundation, a group led by Mick and his sisters Frances, Judith, and Patricia, was founded after their father's death to manage his wealth. But for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, "there is not an endowment," confirms Susan Hirsch, CEO of the philanthropic advisory group that manages the Hellman Foundation, Hirsch & Associates, LLC. "There are funds set aside and there is no ending time at all for the festivals," she emphasizes. "The family loves being able to provide this amazing gift to the community." Since 2011, the Hellman Foundation has given away $25 million in grants.
Mick Hellman stresses that he plans to make Hardly Strictly Bluegrass last, and remain free, for as long as he can — endowment or not. "There was funding for about five years," he says of the original planning when his father died, and "this would be the fifth year." Hellman didn't want to burden his children, Mick tells SF Sounds. "He needed an affirmative decision that we would care for it."
So where does the idea of an endowment originate? With Hellman himself, Mick says. "You look back, there are quotes where he does say that. It's not like he didn't say it.. it's just not actually what he did. That makes it sound like he was being mendacious," says Mick, "He was a really great person who came up with this thing in the first place, but, just as a matter of fact, it wasn't endowed in perpetuity." The confusion, he speculates, likely stems from an earlier plan to endow Hardly Strictly that Hellman had to abandon. "Along the way, he must have considered the possibility, and then as he got closer to planning for the future he wanted to do it differently."
In the end, Mick hypothesizes, the very idea of having the festival forever, as put forth by Hellman, might be what really keeps it going. "Now you have a group of people who feel strongly it must be carried forward, for free." Mick objects strongly to charging for the festival — "ticketing would be inconsistent with what the event was created for," he says. Finally, he adds that "the idea... has even come up about funding it ourselves out of pocket if it comes to that." By "ourselves," Mick means the Hellman family, not just the Hellman Foundation. "The resources within the foundation and the family are enough," he says.
In describing his contribution to Forbes in 2006, Hellman clarified"It’s a fantastically selfish gift, but it is a gift. There are hundreds of thousands of people there who are appreciating it. Just being able to do something that is completely not commercial, that is pure, hopefully, pleasure for the participants to create a surrounding where the musicians and professionals like it as much as the crowd does. How could you have more fun than that? What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?"
While I'm inclined to ask how much all of this non-commercial fun costs, and how long any foundation or group of individuals can make that payment, those might not be the questions that make Hardly Strictly so great. Mick says he knows how much the festival costs, but won't share it with the public. "At some point you start reducing things to numbers, and maybe its best that we enjoy the magic and keep the numbers a secret."
More than just funding, Hardly Strictly requires a massive effort on the part of volunteers, Rec and Parks, and of course, performers. "I think people are very focused on the family as being the people that put this forward," says Mick. "Actually, if we didn't have the good will of the city, and frankly of the artists, you couldn't do it."