The annual Tibet House benefit concert has been a New York institution for 26 years — or maybe 28 or 30. “It’s been 26 years at Carnegie Hall, but we put on a few more, maybe four, before that,” says composer Philip Glass, who is the vice president of Tibet House and has been organizing benefit concerts for the nonprofit organization since the beginning. The organization’s president, Professor Robert Thurman, thinks they’ve put on something like “28 or maybe 29,” but isn’t quite sure, either. What they do know is that the annual concert serves an invaluable purpose for the organization. It raises money, yes, but also awareness for the plight of the Tibetan people — a cause that has driven Tibet House for decades, and continues to, even as it fades from headlines.
Tibet House’s mission is to help preserve Tibet’s long cultural history of Buddhist religion, art, music, and philosophy at a time when the country’s culture faces extinction, in the wake of its annexation or invasion (depending on your political slant) by China. “Since 1951, the Chinese have wanted to pretend to the world that they always — inevitably and naturally — owned Tibet and that Tibet is part of China, but it’s its own independent,” says Thurman.
Thurman founded Tibet House with actor Richard Gere at the request of the Dalai Lama, because when the Dalai Lama asks you to help save his culture, you do it. “I founded Tibet House earlier, but we didn’t get very far until Richard came along in 1986 or 1987,” says Thurman, who is a professor of religion at Columbia University. He and Gere filed the paperwork, got official letterhead, and set up shop on East 15th Street, where the organization is still headquartered today.
Early on in it’s history, Tibet House started putting on an annual benefit concert to raise money and awareness for the Tibetans, timed to coincide with Tibetan New Year. For the last few decades it’s worked the same way: Glass and his committee of “agents, record people, and writers” come up with a list of potential artists from a vast group of famous friends. “We know practically everyone in music,” says Glass, humbly noting the fact. Glass then handwrites invitations to a long list of twenty or so artists whom they would like to play at the concert, and usually six or eight of them are available. Past concerts have featured a who’s who of New York’s music scene, including David Bowie, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Laurie Anderson playing alongside Tibetan musicians.
This year’s show will once again take place at Carnegie Hall on February 22, with performances by Iggy Pop, FKA twigs, Sharon Jones, Gogol Bordello, Basia Bulat, and Dechen Shak-Dagsay with Helge van Dyk. The concert was curated, as always, by Glass, while Chuck Close, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, and Arden Wohl serve as honorary chairpersons and will undoubtedly make an appearance at the gala dinner that follows the performance. It’s a star-packed affair and has been since the inception of the benefit concerts, largely due to the impressive star power of the Tibet House leadership. (Not that Thurman will take any credit for that: “People are fond of the Dalai Lama, mostly, and Tibetans are popular wherever they’re known.”)
In the age of Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, a benefit concert seems almost adorably anachronistic, but Tibet House has no plans to stop. “The concert is a good way to gain publicity for the fate and plight of the Tibetans, and it brings together people in the movement who care about the Tibetans,” says Thurman.
According to Thurman, fundraising for Tibet faces a unique problem: As China’s economy grows, foundations and potential wealthy donors have deep ties to businesses in China and investments that they wouldn’t want to jeopardize by supporting Tibet or Tibet House. “It’s a hard cause to find big support for,” says Thurman. “China’s economy and their clout have grown. We’re up against a really big adversary who doesn’t want people to think about Tibet.”
The organization’s biggest supporters have always been artists and musicians, who are willing to donate their talents to the cause. “They’ve been the most kind and the most brave, not being afraid of China,” says Thurman. “Björk used to do our concerts. She spoke up about Tibet once when she was doing a concert in Hong Kong or Shanghai and they kicked her out of the country!”
A Kickstarter campaign pales in comparison to the publicity that a benefit concert can bring, especially one that features bands like Björk, New Order, the National, Sufjan Stevens, or the Flaming Lips, who brought out Miley Cyrus last year. For Glass, though, there’s yet another reason to keep the concerts going: They’re fun.
“Tibet House concerts have become a kind of meeting ground for musicians,” Glass explains. “At first it was just a way to solve a financial problem, but then it became more. We were able to raise money and Tibet House concerts have developed an identity of their own now.”
“For us it’s kind of a party,” he continues. “That day when we’re rehearsing, we play together, we talk about music together, we have lunch together.”
In addition to Glass’s handwritten invitations, which undoubtedly pack their own punch, Glass thinks part of the reason that Tibet House can lure in such incredible talent is thanks to the venue. “Playing at Carnegie Hall is a special thing,” says Glass. “Many of these players have never been to Carnegie Hall before, even people who play in stadiums and arenas.”
Still, concerts do have their downsides, namely the cost of bringing artists to perform. Even if their services are pro bono, their travel and accommodations may not be. “The concert doesn’t even raise that much money, because of the expense,” says Thurman, who says they choose to keep the ticket price low so that people will come and celebrate Tibet. “We actually raise more money at the gala dinner — not that much actually, but some. We’re not the Metropolitan Opera or the ballet where they raise $10 million in a dinner. We don’t do that at all.”
What money they do raise goes to pay the organization’s overhead, including the salaries of their few paid employees. Other money is passed to Tibetan organizations as well as other groups in need. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for example, proceeds from the benefit were donated in part to aid disaster relief in New Orleans. “We’ll probably send some to Kathmandu this year,” says Glass.
While they love the annual concert, Tibet House has dabbled in digital fundraising, too. “We’ve done Kickstarter campaigns for specific projects, like a documentary or a book,” says Thurman. “We’re working on trying to develop our online thing, but to develop an online presence is expensive, but we are moving in that direction as best we can. Real experts at it are high-priced!”
Even if the organization does find the funds and expertise to set up a digital fundraising platform, they would continue the tradition of the benefit concert. “It’s a way to remind people that Tibet House is still there,” says Glass.
“We’ll keep at our party and concert as much as we can,” says Thurman. “We’re still struggling away, like the poor Tibetans themselves. They’ve been waiting to get Tibet a little more free for 65 years, so we can carry on for 26 — or 28 — years.”
The Tibet House benefit takes place at Carnegie Hall on February 22.