The Group members

“A lot of us are artists and people who just want to try and help the arts,” says current The Group President Ellen Castleman.

By Lisa Butterworth

Marilyn Levin was working as a personal shopper at the luxury department store I. Magnin in Beverly Hills some 30-plus years ago when one of her clients told her about The Group, a volunteer organization that fundraises in support of Otis College of Art and Design, and invited her to lunch with them at the iconic hotel now known as Sunset Tower. “I liked art, I was an art history major, and I was a docent at LACMA. So I said, ‘Sure,’” Levin recounts. She’s been a member ever since. And her introductory experience—high-society functions and word of mouth from woman to woman—was exactly how The Group had operated since its inception in 1972. A lot has changed in the 50 years since, but their unwavering support of Otis College and its students continues to this day. 

It’s not a surprise considering The Group’s auspicious beginnings. It was the brainchild of Missy Chandler, who was joined by some equally recognizable names: M.M. Miller, Nancy Coll, and Kathy Ahmanson. Soon after, Hollywood star Anne Baxter took on a leadership role in The Group as well, and along with a handful of their friends, they began working toward developing new and creative ways to fundraise. For these women that meant hosting parties, luncheons, dinners, and boutiques.

These days The Group’s goings-on are quite a bit more casual. They still host boutiques, where artists come and sell their wares, and for the past couple of decades they’ve offered members what Levin refers to as “art adventures,” or, as they are officially dubbed, Art Focus Days—visits to galleries or artists’ studios, tours of private art collections, and public exhibitions. Though these excursions were paused during much of the pandemic, The Group has recently embarked on these outings again. And though they almost always involve lunch—so the women have a chance to discuss the work they’ve experienced—The Group has evolved from the “ladies who lunch” environment from which it was born. “A lot of us are artists and people who just want to try and help the arts,” says Ellen Castleman, The Group’s current president. 

Since its founding, The Group has awarded more than $1 million dollars to Otis College, with most of it going directly to student scholarships. The group donates $49,000 a year, equally earmarked for one student in each of the undergraduate academic majors. The recipients are chosen by their department chair, and there are no stipulations for who or what the money goes to, so a student can use the funds for class materials, or even rent and food. “We let them do whatever they think will better their careers and their futures,” Castleman says. 

Mandy Tong (’22 BFA Fashion Design, Costume Design, Sustainability), a 2022 Group Scholarship recipient, says the award lifted a huge weight off her shoulders. “Senior year is known to be one of the more expensive years in the Fashion Design department now that we have advanced our skills, granting us the ability to explore high-end fabrics such as wool, sequins, brocade, etc. I was able to design more freely without worrying about the cost of materials to create the most beautiful garments that I can,” she says. “The scholarship also motivated me to continue to work harder so that I, too, in the future can give back to the community and support young fashion students.”

One of The Group’s most exciting functions is the annual scholarship luncheon, when recipients meet members of The Group. The students set up tables and show some of their work before making a more formal presentation to the volunteers. The event is a highlight the The Group members look forward to every year. 

Patrick J. Mahany, Otis College’s VP for Institutional Advancement, underscores the benefits from their half-century of work: “Support from The Group is generous, consistent, and universal,” he says. “Fundamentally and without doubt, this funding is critical to the academic success of these students and, by extension, their professional success after they graduate. The Group scholarships change lives.”

Suhey Elias (’22 BFA Fine Arts, Painting) calls her 2022 Group Scholarship “a miracle—it’s helped me be more in depth with my studies at Otis. I’ve been able to focus more on my studio. My classes. My pieces. I can be more creative with memories, color, scale, and time.”

There are typically about 80 members of The Group, though Castleman says those numbers have recently dipped, and each pay $250 in annual dues. Historically, members have been only women, but that too is changing as the organization continues to evolve. Some husband-and-wife couples have joined together, and members are keen to usher in a new generation that will keep the spirit of The Group thriving. “Anyone who wants to join is more than welcome to do so,” Castleman says. “We want people who are doing things for the right reasons. And for the love of art and the future and having a good time. The idea is to encourage the next generation of artists.”

For more information about becoming a member of The Group, please visit this link.

Main image: Spring 2022 photo of The Group members, including president Ellen Castelman, far right, taken by Jennifer Atalla/Otis College of Art and Design.