Fitting the bill of today's philanthropist

Richard W. Vague at his Rittenhouse Square home with a painting by daughter Lauren. With money, success in business, and a nonnative's love for the city, he could be the model of a modern philanthropist. "I enjoy getting to know artists; I admire the challenge of trying to create something new."

Imagine the very model of a modern major philanthropist and you couldn't do any better than Richard W. Vague.

He is from somewhere else - Texas - which makes him appreciate the city in ways often overlooked by natives. He has money, and a track record that points to greater potential. Vague, 57, is a managing partner of the venture capital firm Gabriel Investments, and has developed and sold several companies. He has cofounded and sold off Energy Plus, an electricity and natural gas supply company, as well as the credit card companies First USA and Juniper Financial.

His Center City home is filled with an eclectic collection of paintings and other works. But Vague not only collects art, he also collects, in a way, artists.

"My interest is primarily in art being created today," he says. "I enjoy getting to know artists; I admire the challenge of trying to create something new."

Artists would love nothing better than to collect more people like Vague. While the city has its share of elder arts patrons whose silver spoons are heaped with varying degrees of largesse, arts boosters still amassing their fortunes are a sought-after commodity.

For a while, Vague thought he would be on the other side of the table. "I have been in business through my adult life, but prior to that, when I was very young, I trained as an artist and was going to be a painter, and really up until college I expected I would be a practicing artist for my life," he said. "And so I developed a deep interest in the arts, and that has found its expression through contributions and through assistance in boards or however else I've been able to help."

In recent years, that help has extended to joining the boards of FringeArts, the Museum of the American Revolution, the Franklin Institute, and the Arts and Business Council of Greater Philadelphia.

If his interest in art is for its intrinsic value, he also values its spin-off contributions to society.

"I have found over the course of time that there are a lot of ancillary benefits to the activities of the arts. Wherever you have lots of art being made, you have houses being developed, galleries and coffee shops and restaurants. You have an environment where people like to be. So it has a spillover effect in terms of making the city more vibrant.

"In my business I have been in the situation where I am trying to take a small business and grow it into a larger business, so recruiting people has always been extremely important, and quite often I am recruiting someone from New York or California or Texas, so the vitality of Philadelphia as a community has always been an important part of that."

Cities, he says, are where the growth is. "I served my time in the suburbs," he quips.

Vague sees his management philosophy regarding arts groups as running parallel to his venture-capitalist ideas - which is to say, the wisdom of the market rules.

"Inevitably, new things get started sometimes that aren't able to find ongoing support. That's just the natural order of things. I think there is something very healthy in art and artists having to pay attention to their audience and supporters, and to have to work to gain their support. It's not automatic, and I think that results in better art."

What could arts and culture groups be doing better in tough times like these?

"In my experience, a lot of it is just the basics. I encounter group after group that is doing wonderful things, but in terms of development - going out and making calls in person or over the phone, holding development events for supporters - again and again I see institutions that are doing some of that but not as much as they could.

"To me, it's knowing your audience and communicating value to them. I think the opportunity is there."

- Peter Dobrin