Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation

by David Western
Chairman, Advisory Board

Art Ortenberg was a classical American success story. The business partner behind his legendary fashion designer wife, Liz Claiborne, their company made the Fortune 500 list and for a decade ran second only to Microsoft for return on investment. Pride in the integrity of their product made Liz Claiborne a household name for outfitting America’s working women in style.

At the pinnacle of success, Liz and Art retired from the glamour and glare of their fashion world to save wildlife. I had never heard of them when Bill Conway, President of the Wildlife Conservation Society, asked me to show them around Amboseli on their first African safari in 1987. Shirley Strum, my Californian wife, was an avid Liz fan and filled me in. I worried how the haute couture couple would cope in the churning dust of Amboseli. They quickly put me at ease. Liz and Art were dressed in safari casuals and couldn’t wait to see elephants close up.

We struck it lucky with a large herd of elephants and a mating pair. Liz was soon besotted by a baby elephant throwing its trunk around as if trying to dislodge a hosepipe on the end of its nose. Art, learning I was chair of the African Elephant and Rhino Specialist Group, pumped me about the ivory trade killing off the elephants. I briefed him on the kingpins and political godfathers behind the poaching, the hundreds of rangers cut down by Kalashnikov-toting gangs and the bleak outlook for elephants. He was shocked at the carnage and suffering and asked what they could do to help.

I showed Art and Liz the success we’d had in Amboseli, curbing poachers by enlisting Maasai herders in the benefits of tourism, and cutting farmers’ losses to elephants with electric fences round their plots.  Art was taken by the solution that did good by elephants and for the people living with them.

After a couple of days of delightful game drives and intense talk, I realized that Art and Liz were no greenback philanthropists who equated money spent with animals saved. They were on a mission, giving up their careers to save wild animals and create harmony with people.

At our farewell dinner in Nairobi, Art asked if I would help them get the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation going. I was thrilled at their invitation. Liz was so down-to-earth and charming, so passionate about elephants, enchanted by cheetahs and taken by the crowned crane’s flashy show of colors that no designer would dare fashion on the catwalk. Art was a powerhouse. His business acumen and energy would drive the foundation.

On my next trip to New York, we spent a heady time in their 5th Avenue office sketching out a mission statement that blended Liz’s passion for animals and Art’s pragmatism and savvy. Liz doodled animal sketches. Art jotted down bullet points. I glimpsed one he had circled: a compassionate heart and strategic mind. That summed up the core values the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation adopted. So began their remarkable second career. 

Art and Liz’s influence on the conservation world is colossal. In grants alone LCAOF has donated over $70 million to saving elephants, chimp, gorillas, tigers, jaguars, lions, whales, manatees, wolves, bears, eagles, cranes and a league of other species. Art saw that more money, guns and guards were not enough to save endangered animals. If the ivory trade was the main threat to elephants, you had to dig into the supply chain to tackle the illegal trade, and the uses of ivory to understand and curb the demand.

One of the first projects LCAOF funded was an investigation into the ivory trade by an eminent group of 35 scientists, economists and trade specialist. The most influential conservation bodies quickly rallied behind the Ivory Trade Review Group (ITRG). The findings eighteen months later were decisive in making a cast iron case for the international ivory trade ban passed by CITES in 1989. Liz, recognizing the role the chic value of ivory played in the elephant slaughter, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times urging stores to stop selling ivory products. ITRG earned LCAOF a reputation for core values, careful study and rallying conservationists to a common cause. 

Art was quick to seize on the role of communities in conservation he saw first-hand in Amboseli. The foundation began supporting a raft of pioneering local initiatives in Asia, Latin America, Africa, Madagascar and the US. In 1993, drawing on case studies from around the world, LCAOF brought together major NGOs, donors, conservationists and community leaders at Airlie House, Virginia to launch a community-based conservation movement. CBC would became a new paradigm and driving force in conservation.

Art and Liz had a deep love of Montana, their adopted home. They bought two ranches, rode the back country and immersed themselves in the Swan Valley community. In the coming years they would fund scores of education projects, the Montana Heritage Project to connect rural school children to their cultural and natural heritage, animal rescue programs, a study of the Post-Frontier Economy, a conservation radio show and a host of conservation organizations saving the grizzly, wolf and wolverine. They paid for dozens of conservation easements and backed efforts to save wild lands in the Yaak Valley, Bitterroot and Madison Valleys, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Rocky Mountain Front.

In 2001, the foundation brought together another line up of influential organizations and conservationists in the tradition of Airlie House. Representatives from state and federal agencies, industry, business and local collaborative groups, as well as politicians, ranchers, farmers, academics, and concerned citizens met at Red Lodge in Wyoming to promote collaborative natural resource management in the Interior West.

An avid eclectic reader, Art was up on the latest political developments and conservation threats around the world. He read every proposal to LCAOF minutely and had no time for boiler plate stuff and report writers who hyped up their organizations. Art insisted on first-hand news and views from the conservationist on the front line. He wanted to know about tough times and the bad news. He would phone up to find out what was going, invite people out to dinner and fly around the world with Liz to check on projects, enjoy wildlife and encourage grantees.

Art was tireless in pushing his latest concerns at the office and with his board, whether the illegal export of Madagascan rosewood, global warming, or the impact of oil and gas mining on the spectacular gathering of caribou, musk ox, shorebird and waterfowl on the Alaskan North Slope. Art wanted to tackle them all, now. He lobbied state and federal officials, foundations and politicians and pushed grantees to do more.

He had another side few saw. Art adhered to Margret Mead’s dictum: “Never forget that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed this is the only thing that ever has.”

Liz and Art’s dedication to quality came out in the first-rate conservationists and organizations they backed. With an eye to the future, they funded scholarships for up-and-coming nationals in Latin America and Asia and advanced promising women conservationists in the Congo Basin.

A man of deeply held values and ironclad principles, Art was exacting, demanding, hectic and impatient. Had no time for show-case conservationists and fame-seekers. He’d been there and done that. He was quick to see through conservation fads and quackery and cut out the bull. Conservation is a disheartening world punctuated by shards of good news and small victories. Art was irritated and disheartened at bad news and hard on those around him. But he always rallied and redoubled his efforts to save the wild critters.

When Liz died of a long bout of cancer in 2007, Art was bereft and spent a year writing a cathartic book about his inseparable partner, Liz Claiborne: The Legend, The Woman. He was lucky to find a new soul mate in Cathy Horyn, chief fashion editor of the New York Times. It was delightful to see him rebound and put his energy into saving the three creatures Liz and he cared most for: tigers, jaguars and elephants.

Although his time was running out, Art never let up. As ever, he saw hope for the future in a few good people. He made sure the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation was in the hands of trustees and a board he knew would deliver.

Farewell Art. I remember you best for our horse ride with Liz, threading between the wildlife herds in northern Kenya. Your horse reared up at a rustle in the bush and threw you flat on your back with such a wallop that I thought you’d severed your spine. You lay paralyzed for a moment, then got up stiffly and remounted without a word. Nothing was going to keep you from our game ride. You always got up and went on, however hard the going. Your foundation will do the same.

Ullas Karanth's Homage to Art>

Panthera:  Remembering a Conservation Champion>