What are they spending it on?

Dec 17, 2019

What are they spending it on?

Recently the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center announced new plans to renovate the orchestra’s concert hall. This is an internal renovation; the outside of the building will remain the same. The projected price? $550 million!!! The price is a tad shocking for a renovation. Yes, everything costs more in New York City. But $550 million is a lot, even to fix a concert hall with poor acoustics.

The most talked about new hall in the world is the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany. It was originally projected (in 2003) to cost $82 million. The construction ran seven years past its projected completion date and ended up costing over $961 million. For comparison, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Kimmel Center in Philadelphia opened in 2001 and cost $235 million. The Nashville Symphony’s wonderful Schermerhorn Symphony Center opened in 2006 and cost $123 million.

Just this year, Shriver Hall Auditorium opened after an extensive $14 million renovation. The acoustics are better, and it has new seats, better lighting, a new stage and other technical improvements. This is the exciting new home of Baltimore Choral Arts.

Classic music is perhaps more dependent on the acoustics of its performance space than theatre and other arts. Other disciplines, such as musical theatre or jazz, often amplify their sound and can electronically compensate for a wide variety of acoustics. Choruses, orchestras and classical chamber music very rarely use amplification.

In an era of challenging funding for the arts, with story after story about budget shortfalls, is it appropriate to spend $550 million to improve acoustics? The New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center have vast fund raising resources, and they report that they have already raised two thirds of the money required for their renovation. It is almost guaranteed that they will raise enough to finish the job. But, it begs the question—is this the best use of donors’ generous gifts and all the organizational efforts it takes to raise $550 million?

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