Behind a Campus Gift Helping to Transform an Industrial City into a Music Mecca

Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic

Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic

Across the past 18 months, we've seen a steady stream of endowment gifts earmarked for the recruitment and retention of arts professionals, scholars, and teachers at the university level.

It isn't a particularly surprising trend. With big money flowing across non-coastal regions like the Southwest, Southeast, and Midwest, schools are well-positioned to lure top-flight talent away from the hustle and bustle of places like New York or Los Angeles. Just last month Matthew VanBesien quit as the president of the New York Philharmonic for a new job in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

And last month, came word that nearby Carnegie Mellon University is poised to become another well-funded magnet for arts professionals thanks to a $5 million gift from the Jack Buncher Foundation and the Jack G. Buncher Charitable Fund for Carnegie Mellon to support its School of Music in its College of Fine Arts. 

The gift, the largest in the history of the School of Music, will endow the Jack G. Buncher Chair for the head of the school and enable the school to "attract and retain distinguished scholars" to lead its programs.

Buncher was born and raised in Pittsburgh. He founded Buncher Co., a real estate company that eventually expanded into public warehousing, railroad car parts and repair, and residential and hotel development. In 1974 he founded the Jack Buncher Foundation.

Prior to his death in 2001 at the age of 90, Buncher laid the groundwork to give away his entire company in what a 2013 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article called the "ultimate act of philanthropy:"

Set in motion in 2008, transfers of closely held stock from the Jack G. Buncher Trust have given company ownership to the Jack Buncher Foundation and five charitable funds, one each for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. 

His daughter Bernita now carries the torch. A classical music enthusiast, she is a prominent advocate for the arts, education, and civic causes in the Pittsburgh region. She's also a trustee of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which boasts 23 faculty members at Carnegie Mellon's School of Music.

Pittsburgh has been consistently cited as a case study for cities transitioning from an industrial-based economic model. Philanthropy clearly has played a major role in this shift, and the gift to Carnegie Mellon underscores that full breadth of such a transition. 

Both Buncher-affiliated foundations understand that a key ingredient to Rust Belt revitalization is a vibrant arts ecosystem. It's a trend we've seen unfold in places like Cleveland, which boasts vibrant theater scene, as well as Detroit and Akron, where Knight Foundation-led redevelopment efforts lean heavily on the arts.

Pittsburgh has the added benefit of being home to Carnegie Mellon, an "arts anchor," which, thanks to this recent $5 million infusion, is increasingly resembling a world-class science and engineering school that also happens to be an international music destination.