Every year, Claire Peeps saves the lives of some 100 Los Angeles artists, six directors of nonprofit arts organizations, even a few city leaders — not literally, of course, but in her capacity as executive director of the Durfee Foundation. In that capacity, she's one of L.A.'s unknown heroes, spreading cheer like some sort of arty Santa Claus.

Established in 1960 by the late R. Stanton Avery, inventor of the self-adhesive label, the Durfee Foundation has awarded more than $20 million in grants, primarily in the L.A. area, to the arts, culture, education and community development. Named in honor of Avery's wife, Dorothy Durfee Avery, the Durfee is a family foundation — three of its five board positions are filled by family members — which accomplishes an extraordinary amount with a minuscule staff of three working out of modest offices on the Santa Monica Promenade.

“People ask how we do so much with so few,” Peeps says. “The answer is, in larger organizations, 30 to 50 percent of one's time is spent in meetings. We have fewer meetings and can turn on a dime.”

Peeps, a photographer who came to Los Angeles with a fine-arts degree in 1985, was executive director of Astro Arts and publisher of the seminal performance-art magazine High Performance, then went on to work with director Peter Sellars on the Los Angeles Festivals of 1990 and 1993. She began at the Durfee in 1995, and has no plans to leave.

“This is a fascinating job because it puts me in contact with ambitious, creative, dedicated people who are changing the face of Los Angeles,” Peeps says. “I feel hugely privileged to interact with them — it's as if we're growing things together. I don't want to leave, because it gets richer over time.”

The Durfee's seven grant programs include the Gay and Lesbian Fund (currently focused on the Gay Straight Alliance Network); the Sabbatical Program, which enables foundation directors to take a year off to regroup; the Springboard Fund, which funds individuals developing innovative approaches to community building; and the Stanton Fellowship, which is awarded to city leaders whose projects target problems specific to L.A.

Of particular interest to L.A. artists is ARC (Artists' Resource for Completion), which provides quick, short-term grants of up to $3,500 to local artists working on specific projects nearing completion. (Applications, which are reviewed by peer panels, come from the artists themselves and they must have an invitation from an established arts organization to present their work.) With the trying economic atmosphere in which most artists work, an ARC grant can be, if not an actual lifesaver, then certainly a lifeline. This is no “genius” grant, wherein a large amount of money goes to a few; rather, some 100 ARC grants are awarded on a quarterly basis each year. This is by design.

“When we spoke to artists,” Peeps explains, “they told us that they preferred more grants of lesser amounts, and they wanted to be able to apply for [the grant] themselves, rather than depend on the nomination process, which can be biased.”

As was the case with most foundations, the Durfee lost approximately 25 percent of its endowment during the recent economic downturn but is currently stable and plans to continue operating for at least the next five years. In October, it will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a two-day retreat for leaders of L.A.'s nonprofit community, to be held downtown at the California Endowment. It promises to be a stellar group. “L.A. is a fantastic place to be working,” Peeps says, “because it has so many big problems, and so many brilliant people trying to solve them.”

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