Carnegie Hall is Rescued, and Reoriented

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1990

Carnegie Hall is an American treasure—its history, its architecture, and its magnificent acoustics make it the gold standard for American music halls even a century and a quarter after its opening. It is also a masterpiece of philanthropy, having been created in 1891 for the enjoyment of the American public as a gift from Andrew Carnegie, who paid the entire bill for its creation and whose family owned the hall until 1925. Over the decades, thousands of concerts by the world’s greatest artists have taken place in the facility, and the New York Philharmonic was in residence from 1892 to 1962.

By the early 1980s, though, the hall was in serious disrepair. Having rarely turned a profit in 90 years of existence, the facility required an estimated $30 million in fixes, and was in danger of being demolished. Then James Wolfensohn, an investment banker with a passion for music, led an ambitious effort to not only raise the money for restoration but also revamp the hall’s business practices to ensure a long life. Wolfensohn overhauled the concert schedule and modernized the hall’s marketing. He donated a million dollars of his own and roped other prominent New Yorkers into joining the effort. They raised $80 million, broadened the base of annual contributors from under 800 to over 9,000, and set the hall on a secure financial footing for the first time in decades.

The very earliest effort to meld commerce and art to keep Carnegie Hall flush had been when Andrew Carnegie himself added towers to the original auditorium to provide practice studios that could be rented to musicians. This both addressed a shortage of practice space in the city and gave the hall some regular cash flow. In 2014, a major donor-funded renovation of these practice spaces was unveiled. Fully rebuilt, enlarged, and sound-proofed, the rooms have allowed the facility to greatly expand its teaching, student performances, children’s programming, master classes for artists, and chamber music activity, while making rehearsing more efficient for all sizes of ensembles.

During the construction, a roof garden was also added, the backstage areas of the hall were redone, all 450 windows were restored, and the exterior of the building was floodlit for the first time. The $230 million project made the hall more visible and useable, and the new spaces are also being rented, as planned, for receptions, weddings, and celebrations, adding another source of steady revenue to support the facility’s arts programming. This further solidification of the future of the musical capital of the nation was supported by major donors like Joan and Sanford Weill ($35 million), Judith and Burton Resnick ($10 million), Lily Safra ($6 million), and others.