David Geffen Captures Naming Rights to Avery Fisher Hall With Donation

March 4, 2015
David Geffen, the entertainment magnate who has shaped cultural tastes in music and movies and holds one of the world's leading art collections, is extending his reach into classical music with a $100 million gift that will renovate and rename Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Mr. Geffen's gift, to be announced on Wednesday by Lincoln Center, will help pay for the hall's gut renovation, which is expected to cost more than $500 million. Although construction is not scheduled to begin until 2019, the building will become David Geffen Hall this September, with the start of the Philharmonic's 2015-2016 season.

The hall, home to the New York Philharmonic and built in 1962, has long been viewed as outdated and acoustically problematic. The leaders of Lincoln Center reached out to Mr. Geffen in November, soon after persuading the Fisher family with the help of a $15 million check to relinquish the name of the performing arts center known as the home of the New York Philharmonic.

"It was a quick yes for me," Mr. Geffen said in an interview at Lincoln Center with the executives of the complex.

Though widely perceived as a Los Angeles titan without much history as either a New Yorker or a classical music patron, Mr. Geffen presented himself in the interview as a New York native.

"I'm a kid from Brooklyn it's a big deal," he said. "I watched them build this building."

Owning the work of artists like Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning one curator said his collection "is to postwar American art what the Frick Collection is to old master painting" Mr. Geffen has broad cultural tastes. As a music producer, he fostered the careers of musicians such as the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt and Nirvana. As a film producer, he established DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

"I'm an arts junkie," he said.

Asked to elucidate his classical music bona fides, Mr. Geffen said that he regularly goes to Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "I love classical music," he said. "Why does one have to prove it anyway?"

Katherine G. Farley, Lincoln Center's chairwoman, quickly chimed in: "You have nothing to prove. Lincoln Center is so thrilled to have David's name associated with this hall. It couldn't be better."

The contribution to be paid out over eight years could irritate New Yorkers who might prefer to see the city's largest performing arts center named after a local figure, not a 72-year-old philanthropist whose fortune was largely made in film and rock music on the West Coast. But Mr. Geffen tried to dispel that image, noting that he has owned an apartment on Fifth Avenue since 1976 and these days spends more time in Manhattan than in Malibu. "I love New York," he said.

The gift suggests that $100 million has become the going rate for big naming gifts; David H. Koch, the oil-and-gas billionaire, gave that sum to the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in 2008, which now bears his name. And Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Wall Street financier, gave that amount to the New York Public Library's flagship on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street for its renovation, which is now named after him.

Though some naming agreements have sunset provisions Mr. Koch's says the State Theater can be renamed after 50 years, with the Koch family retaining the right of first refusal Mr. Geffen insisted that the Philharmonic's hall bear his name in perpetuity.

"I think it's appropriate," he said. "How often can you change the name of this hall?"

It was the issue of perpetuity that prompted Avery Fisher's family 13 years ago to threaten legal action if the concert hall were to be rebuilt or renovated under a new name. The building originally Philharmonic Hall was renamed in 1973 after Mr. Fisher, a music philanthropist, gave $10 million to support the building.

Asked how she felt about the Geffen name, Nancy Fisher, one of the Fisher children, said simply, "I wish him well."

Ms. Farley said Mr. Geffen's perpetuity stipulation was reasonable. "It's going to really transform the hall," she said, "and galvanize the giving for the renovation."

Jed Bernstein, the president of Lincoln Center, said, "For any of us in show business, to be associated in anything with David is a privilege."

Lincoln Center officials, who have agreed to share fund-raising obligations for the renovation with the Philharmonic, one of the center's constituent organizations, said that Ms. Farley approached Mr. Geffen after the agreement was made with the Fisher family. "I think Katherine called me the next day," Mr. Geffen said jokingly.

Ms. Farley said she and Mr. Geffen knew each other socially and over the last two years had been talking about "how he might become involved in Lincoln Center."

"David has been in the music world forever and here you have this iconic music hall," she said, "so it seemed like a very good match."

"And I had the money," Mr. Geffen said.

Mr. Geffen said he would not be weighing in on the hall's artistic decisions. "I don't feel like I have a vote," he said.

Matthew VanBesien, the Philharmonic's executive director, called the gift "generous and inspiring," adding that the orchestra was brought "into the loop at the appropriate time."

Mr. Geffen said the hall was sorely in need of an upgrade. "It was never right," he said. "The acoustics here have never been good."

Mr. Geffen's philanthropy has made headlines before; his $200 million donation in 2002 to the U.C.L.A. School of Medicine now the David Geffen School of Medicine at U.C.L.A. set a record as the single largest donation of its kind to a United States medical school. He gave another $100 million to the school for scholarships in 2012.

Listed at No. 68 on the Forbes 400 list in 2014 with an estimated worth of $6.9 billion, Mr. Geffen has also made substantial contributions to organizations fighting AIDS, including Gay Men's Health Crisis, God's Love We Deliver and the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Since retiring about five years ago, Mr. Geffen said he had focused on philanthropy through his foundation. "I want to give my money away while I'm alive and watch it do good," he said.

Both Mr. Geffen and Ms. Farley said their negotiations were not affected by the Philharmonic's recent announcement that its music director, Alan Gilbert, would step down in 2017, after eight seasons. The planned departure of Mr. Gilbert, 48, has prompted a search for a successor to lead the orchestra through the hall's renovation, which will force the orchestra to perform away from its Lincoln Center home for two seasons. (An architect has not yet been selected.)

"This will give that search energy," Mr. VanBesien said. "We want to find someone who's a great musical artist but we also want someone who can fully engage in this project."

As to whether Mr. Geffen seemed like a good fit for the Philharmonic, Mr. VanBesien said: "I like that he's made his life about music, about film and now he's focusing on philanthropy. I think that's a great story."

The New York Times

By Robin Pogrebin
Photo by Richard Perry