“Hardly Strictly Warren Hellman”: The Man Behind SF’s Bluegrass Festival

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Mia Orantia
Staff Writer

While thousands of people gather at this year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass for a weekend of free music at Golden Gate Park, the festival is also a reminder of founder Warren Hellman’s legacy. In commemorating the festival’s history in San Francisco and the man behind it all, the Contemporary Jewish Museum currently has “Hardly Strictly Warren Hellman” on exhibit.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass started in 2001 and Hellman hoped it would be a space where “everyone could get along” for a few days. Even though he passed at the age of 77 in 2011, Hellman left an endowment for the festival to continue for the next 15 years after his death.

“Warren Hellman was one of those superhuman type of people with a lot of energy. He was a very successful business man, a multimillionaire, an athlete, and among all these activities, he brought philanthropy to the city,” said the museum’s Chief Curator Renny Pritikin.

As the great-grandson of the president of Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank, Hellman was born into a prominent family. However, Hellman was a man of many interests and he created his own legacy in business, culture, and philanthropy.

After graduating from Harvard Business School, Hellman went on to have a distinguished career in the private equity business, making his mark on Wall Street. In 1984, he was co-founder of the leading private equity firm, Hellman & Friedman, and then served as President of Lehman Brothers, the former fourth-largest investment firm in the U.S.

Having roots in San Francisco, Hellman was a benefactor to the city and used his wealth to generously give back to the community.  He told Forbes in 2006 that he viewed money like manure, quoting Texas financier Clint Murchison. “If you spread it around, good things will grow — and if you pile it up, it just smells bad.”

Hellman served as a past Chairman and Trustee Emeritus of The San Francisco Foundation and was a well-known contributor to St. Anthony’s Foundation, Golden Gate Park, and the San Francisco Free Clinic.  As a graduate of local public schools, Lowell High School and UC Berkeley, Hellman was a proponent of public education and brought the business community and funders to support and partner with the San Francisco Unified School District.

Hellman’s
Hellman’s jacket has the word “tenth” in Hebrew rhinestoned at the back. Signifying the 10th year of the festival, the word “tenth” also references the Jewish tradition to give 10% of one’s income to charity.
Photo credit: Mia Orantia / FOGHORN

Beyond his philanthropic accomplishments, Hellman had a deep love for music and believed in the importance of community arts. Notably, his greatest gift to the city is Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. According to Pritikin, the endowment left by Hellman covers artists fees, their stay and travel, publicity, portable toilets, and police.

Hellman was also a banjo player in his band called “The Wronglers,” and he made appearances on stage in earlier Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festivals, performing with other musicians.

Pritikin said, “Hellman was modest. The first year of the festival brought about 13,000 attendees, and Hellman said, ‘I just wanted a get together with some friends.” Now, the festival brings in over 700,000 people annually.

“Warren Hellman and the Bluegrass Festival he bequeathed to the city of San Francisco are true local icons,” said Lori Starr, the museum’s executive director. “‘Hardly Strictly Warren Hellman’ will allow visitors to immerse themselves in the spirit of the Festival, as an expression of the joy Hellman received from giving to others and the city he loved, and in a Museum he helped shape.”

The exhibit features audio stations, festival scrapbooks of previous lineups, and live performance footage from past Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festivals available to the public for the first time. On display is Hellman’s banjo, signed by various artists who’ve performed at the festival, and his rhinestone studded jacket made by his granddaughter for the festival’s tenth anniversary.

“Hardly Strictly Warren Hellman” is on exhibit at the Yud Gallery for the next two years. Every third Thursday of the month, the museum will host live bands and acts that have performed over the years at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. For more information, visit thecjm.org.

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