Thirty Million Bucks Says Symphonies May Not Be Doomed After All

There's a lot of cash flowing into the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association these days. In the past month, $32 million has been donated to the association by two major funders: the Zell Family Foundation and the Negaunee Foundation, which gave $17 million and $15 million respectively. The gifts are the largest in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) history.

“Both foundations really made these decisions and committed to (the gifts) just within the last month, but certainly we’ve been talking to them about the role they play with our institution for a longer time,” said Deborah Rutter, who will leave her post as president on June 30 to head the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “We only signed one contract yesterday, the other about three weeks ago,” she continued.

What’s behind these enormous checks? Two things, both of which may offer hope for other symphonies.

For starters, Sam and Helen Zell have been financial supporters of the CSO for more than a decade, underwriting concerts and programs. But now they're moving into a life stage during which donors often ramp up their giving: Sam is 72, and Forbes estimates his net worth at $4.5 billion. If he doesn't start moving more of that money out the door in coming years, somebody else will be doing it for him after he's gone, often a distasteful thought to billionaires who got rich by calling the shots. 

Helen Zell's growing interest in big giving is no secret, since she gave gave $50 million to the University of Michigan's creative program last year, as we reported here. (See also our profile of Helen Zell and our profile of the Zell Family Foundation.)

The Zell Foundation's recent $17 million gift is helping the association establish in perpetuity its first named music director in CSO history—a position currently held by the distinguished Italian maestro Riccardo Muti. Under the terms of the gift, the endowed position will remain after Muti’s tenure is up in 2020 and will be the terminal position for future music directors.

But back to our bigger point: While its aging fan base is a huge liability for classical music, it can also be a major advantage as older fans like the Zells start to make bigger gifts. 

The Negaunee Foundation’s $15 million gift, which is the second-largest in the association’s history, will provide annual operating support for the association and will endow, in perpetuity, CSO’s education and community engagement wing, the Institute for Learning, Access and Training. The wing will be known as the Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

And with this gift, too, there's a larger story: Community engagement is a red-hot arts funding area right now, and the CSO has been serious about moving into this area. Now it's reaping the dividends. 

"When Deborah Rutter became President of the CSOA 11 years ago, she brought with her a commitment and passion for music education, which matched the Negaunee Foundation's focus on early childhood education," said Symphony Association Board Chairman Jay Henderson. "Without Deborah's efforts and passion, we might not have developed the Institute to where it stands today, let alone where it will go in the future."

The last sizeable contribution to the CSO, which this year turns 123, was $6 million made in 1997 to help fund the build-out of the Symphony Center complex. That complex now houses the orchestra's concert hall and administrative offices and that donor still remains anonymous.