'Come out and see why these crazy people gave so much money': Irwin Jacobs Explains Gifts to San Diego Symphony

Under the best of circumstances, the delicate balance of selling tickets and raising money is a difficult one for any local arts group. But when the economy is as rough as it's been in recent years, the struggle is even greater than usual.

Symphonies in many cities have experienced serious financial problems over the years, especially during the recent economic downturn. In recent years, the Atlanta Symphony claimed a $20 million shortfall and locked out musicians for a time. Detroit's symphony musicians went on strike. Symphonies in New Mexico, Syracuse, and Philadelphia all filed for bankruptcy protection.

But thanks to Irwin and Joan Jacobs, the San Diego Symphony is having its best times in many years. The symphony is approving new contracts with its musicians and even giving them small raises. Over the past few years, the base salary for San Diego Symphony musicians has more than doubled. And though the salaries are still far below those at many of the country's top orchestras, the San Diego Symphony doesn't have to fight with its musicians to agree to lower pay to keep playing — and they are nowhere near bankruptcy.

Things weren't always so easy for the San Diego Symphony. It was bankrupt once and about to dissolve several times in the 1990s. At one point, its doors were shuttered for two years.

Irwin and Joan Jacobs, local arts philanthropists and long supporters of the San Diego Symphony, were all too aware of the symphony's struggles, prompting Mrs. Jacobs to say, "It's never going to be a great symphony if every week they're trying to meet payroll." Mr. Jacobs, who developed an interest in classical music as a child, even making his mom take him to see Fantasia four times, credits his wife's statement as the beginning of the couple's strong financial support of the San Diego Symphony. Of their $120 million gift, Mr. Jacobs stated, "I thought maybe it would help encourage audiences to come out and see why these crazy people gave so much money." (Read Irwin Jacobs' IP profile.)

The gift wasn't in the form of a lump-sum payment. Instead, it was a combination of donations and future bequests. The goal was not simply to keep the symphony alive but to sustain it for the long term. The gift came in three parts: $20 million in the form of $2 million installments over 10 years would be used to pay annual expenses. There were also installments of $5 million annually over 10 years that were to go into the symphony's endowment fund, from which the symphony can withdraw only a small percentage every year. Another $50 million will eventually come in the form of a bequest in the couple's will, to be paid when they pass away. In addition to those donations, Jacobs also bought a 1700s-era Stradivarius violin for $3 million that concertmaster Jeff Thayer plays in support of the symphony.

More than a decade after the initial gift, Irwin and Joan Jacobs's money is still keeping the San Diego Symphony in the black, even as many other symphonies struggle just to stay afloat.