The Bride of Bently: the marriage of passion, purpose and philanthropy

You are here

Tony Bravo, San Francisco Chronicle

Camille Bently is behaving like a monster. The 34-year-old executive director of the Bently Foundation, the 5-year-old organization she founded with her husband, Bently Enterprises CEO Christopher Bently, 45, has kicked off her Manolo Blahniks and jumped on the antique chaise. She flaps the drop sleeves of her shimmering Michael Costello gown like a bat and claws the air: Her hair is streaked with a shock of white. She’s a vision straight from the mind of Mary Shelley.

The “Frankenstein” connection comes from the Bently Foundation’s $500,000 co-lead sponsorship, with the Hellman Family, of the San Francisco Ballet’s North American premiere of choreographer Liam Scarlett’s adaptation of the horror novel. “Frankenstein,” co-presented with London’s Royal Ballet, is a perfect fit for the Bentlys, whose foundation emphasizes project-based arts funding, and environmental and animal causes.

The couple also share a love of high Scottish Gothic style, as evidenced by the renovation of their penthouse at the Bently Nob Hill and their eclectic, complementary fashion sense that veers toward the brooding glamour of the British fashion house of Alexander McQueen. Their 2015 wedding was even held at Mount Stuart, a castle in Scotland, with Christopher and his groomsmen outfitted in kilts in the Bently tartan. With her sense of fun and the theatrical, Camille needed little convincing to get into character — several, actually — for a photo shoot.

“‘Frankenstein’ really appealed to us because it’s unusual for the San Francisco Ballet,” says Camille, now back in foundation director mode, with the Bentlys’ rescue Chihuahua, Carlito, curling up next to her. “You need to see more than just ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘The Nutcracker’ every year to really appreciate the art form.” Although Camille acknowledges the ballet’s dark themes and modern staging may not be a favorite for classical ballet purists, she believes it will be “effective in involving a wider audience, which is what the performing arts need.” Ballet, and its continued survival, is a major passion of Camille’s.

While Christopher Bently is well known in San Francisco for his philanthropy and his businesses, which include the historic Bently Reserve venue in the Financial District, the sustainability focused Bently Ranch, and the in-progress Bently Heritage distillery in Nevada, Camille has mostly stayed out of the spotlight since she and Christopher became a couple. But as Camille continues to establish herself in the foundation world, she’s adjusting to public prominence — on her terms. The type of social obligations that fill many San Francisco philanthropists’ calendars are not on the couple’s dance card, and likewise, it’s hard to imagine many other foundation heads throwing themselves into portraying iconic horror characters with the verve the Bentlys have.

“We don’t have the quintessential social ticket for the year where we tick off every gala,” Camille says.

Running a family foundation is not a role the woman born Camille Church in Auburn (Placer County) spent her life preparing for. She is the middle of seven siblings who grew up “all over the country” as the children of traveling Jehovah’s Witness missionaries.

“At the age of 16 I had finished high school and was working two jobs and could support myself and didn’t believe in the religion at all,” Camille says, mentioning the church’s lack of equality for women as a specific area of disagreement. “I moved out and never looked back.” She supported herself, then became a young wife and mother; her daughter, Hope, is 12. A noticeable autodidact, she describes herself as “eternally curious” and a voracious reader of histories.

The couple met in 2012 when Camille was working as an art consultant at the Marcus Ashley Gallery in South Lake Tahoe. Christopher was in the midst of a divorce from his then-wife Amber, and Camille was a six-years-divorced single mother. They bonded over the art of Dr. Seuss, a specialty of the gallery, and quickly became a couple.

“I was very content being single,” Camille says. “Chris was a surprise. The first time we went on a date, we really opened our hearts up to each other.”

“We felt safe with each other,” Christopher says. After five months, Camille says, they were spending “all our time together” and were brought closer by the deaths of Christopher’s former wife and his father, engineer and philanthropist Donald Bently, in quick succession.

The sale of the senior Bently’s antique coin collection allowed Christopher to found the $40 million endowment family foundation. Camille first served as the foundation’s development director before the board voted her director after two years. It’s a role in which she thrives, according to grant recipients and board colleagues, as the foundation awards grants to organizations and projects as varied as the Bay Lights, public art project Sites Uns-en, the Marine Mammal Center and the American Wild Horses Preservation Campaign.

San Francisco Ballet executive director Glenn McCoy, having seen Camille in action at the foundation’s board meeting, calls her a “natural.”

“I was really impressed with how she led the conversation,” McCoy says. “I think really good foundation leaders are people by nature who are generous with big hearts. I was blown away by Camille’s generosity of spirit.” McCoy calls “Frankenstein” “a perfect match between funder and project,” and describes the $500k grant, a third of the production’s budget, as a “breakthrough gift” in terms of the Bentlys’ previous giving.

“Camille treats everybody as an equal,” says Renee Richardson, the development director at the Blue Bear School of Music, which was awarded a $100,000 grant by the Bently Foundation for a campus on the south side of San Francisco. “She just gets what she’s doing and believes in it.”

David Miller, the executive director of Oakland arts center the Crucible, says that the “consistent and generous support” of the Bentlys, including a $100,000 grant in 20015, was invaulable in allowing the organization to build on its youth education initiatives — in particular the pre-apprentice program that provides instruction in artistic metalworking and fabrication. The Bentlys were honored at the Crucible’s gala last spring for their years of support.

But recently, the foundation was abruptly forced to confront a major sea change with the election of President Donald Trump. At the first post-election board meeting, Camille asked if a change in strategies was required given the new administration’s stated intentions to cut arts funding and to scrap environmental protections.

“Our focus for the next four years is looking at organizations that rely on government grants that might not be funded that we can’t live without,” Camille says. “We’re doing research, looking at what happens over the next few months.” The foundation is following news about the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Endowment for the Arts especially close, given upheaval at both in the days since the inauguration.

“We expected a very different result,” Christopher says of the election, also noting the couple’s concern for racial and religious minority rights as well as the LGBT community. Both Bentlys attended Women’s Marches the day after Trump’s inauguration, Christopher in San Francisco and Camille in Washington, D.C., with a childhood friend.

“I would say Camille’s confidence has come to match her convictions,” says Bently Foundation board member Jennifer Raiser. “She’s always been passionate about the underdog — now she has the means and the opportunity to create those protections and inspire others to do it with her. Some people who are catapulted into her situation let go of their previous values, and this has emboldened her values.”

In spite of a new urgency with their work with the foundation, the Bentlys say their new family is in a “wonderful place.” Christopher and Hope, who attends school in Nevada, were immediately very close, and Christopher even said vows to his new daughter at the couple’s wedding. Camille says she has not only found her footing in the foundation world, she’s also prepared to continue to shake things up.

“Philanthropy is really changing,” she observes. “People want to be involved and hands-on instead of writing the same check every year.” She predicts there won’t be much time in the next four years for jumping on chaise longues, so she’s enjoying playing the bride while she can.

Originally posted by San Francisco Chronicle