"This is a Project That Must Happen." Behind a Billionaire's Big Gift for Arts at Ground Zero

Ronald O. Perelman's $75 million donation to revive plans to build a performing arts center at the World Trade Center site reminds us of a famous Winston Churchill quote: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."  

Let's set it up for you.

As the New York Times notes, one of last remaining pieces of unfinished business at the World Trade Center site has been a proposed performing arts center that never seemed to get off the ground. The center was an important component of the architect Daniel Libeskind’s 2003 master plan for the site, but was subsequently pushed to the background as other, more pressing concerns took over. In the intervening years planners tossed around various design ideas, but nothing stuck. The project dwelled in a no-man's land.

That being said, Perelman's involvement didn't appear in a vacuum. Ten years ago, then-mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who was also the chairman of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, rang up Perelman, who agreed to donate $5 million to the museum project. Perelman stayed involved, expressing enthusiasm for the idea of a performing arts center at the site, and, as the project finally took shape recently, he agreed to make the lead gift. The new theater complex will be named for him.

So what prompted Perelman to take the $75 million plunge? Well for starters, Perelman felt that a gift of such magnitude was long overdue. "I think that this is a project that must happen," Perelman said in an interview. "It is more than just a pure artistic center to serve a community. It is that, but at the same time it’s much more than that."

Perelman's gift comes during a time in which New York City arts institutions are committing approximately $3.47 billion in new capital projects. As such, a handful of the city's most ambitious cultural power brokers have become increasingly aggressive in using their wealth to reshape the region's cultural infrastructure. It's a kind of Big Apple Gilded Age led by titans like David Geffen, David Koch, and Stephen A. Schwarzman.

And therein lies an open question moving forward: In a highly cultured city replete with ever-growing options, will this new center actually have an audience? Proponents, not surprisingly, say yes. According to the Times, the backers of the new Perelman center downtown see it as "filling an important niche for a midsize theater that can accommodate the kinds of multidisciplinary works many artists experiment with today." The plan calls for the center to present or produce dance, concerts, new or early chamber opera, and theater, and to become the main venue of the Tribeca Film Festival each April.

If the aesthetic bent of the proposed center sounds somewhat democratic and egalitarian, that too shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering the man behind the lead gift. Perelman, who recently left Carnegie Hall after spending less than a year as its chairman after clashing with its staff and other board members, previously suggested the hall should stage more pop music to attract a wider audience.

Alas, while Taylor Swift won't be performing at Carnegie anytime soon, Perelman will nonetheless likely get his wish at the new center downtown. "I would hope it is the first venue of choice for the Bruce Springsteens and the BonJovis and the Yo-Yo Mas and the Lang Langs, and at the same time it's a place where we could have produced a Hamilton project or where we could produce a new ballet," he said.  

And so, with Perelman's lead gift having made a sizable dent in the center's $240 million price tag, the beginning has ended. The next phase has commenced.

"Ronald’s gift is going to open the doors," said Maggie Boepple, the center’s president and director. "We have some other donors in the wings."