Avery Fisher Hall Renaming Shows Fleeting Fame And Naming Rights

November 14, 2014       Mark Hrywna      

To begin the process of raising a half-billion dollars for renovations to Avery Fisher Hall, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts will rename the 50-year-old facility, in hopes of securing a new nine-figure gift.

The New York City institution yesterday announced an agreement with the family of Avery Fisher, the “father of high fidelity,” who donated $10 million to renovate the former Philharmonic Hall in 1973 and name the building in perpetuity.

Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic plan to begin extensive renovations on the concert hall in 2019. With costs for those plans expected to exceed $500 million, a new naming gift would spur the start of that fundraising campaign. Fisher’s name will remain prominent at the facility, which will be home to the new Lincoln Center Hall of Fame, with an Avery Fisher Classical Music Wing. Avery Fisher will be among its first honorees.

The agreement “enables us to pursue a new naming opportunity that will help fund construction of a state-of-the-art, new home for the New York Philharmonic and other world-class performers,” Jed Bernstein, president of Lincoln Center, said via a statement accompanying the announcement. The agreement was made with the children of the late Avery Fisher – who died in 1994 – Nancy, Charles Avery Fisher and Barbara Fisher Snow. Lincoln Center will pay the family $15 million but representatives declined to go into details. The $15 million will reportedly come from a line of credit that the eventual gift will pay back.

The family threatened a lawsuit in 2002 if the concert hall was renovated under a new name, according to the New York Times. At the time, Lincoln Center was planning a massive billion-dollar redevelopment that renovated much of its campus near Columbus Circle in Manhattan.

The original $10 million gift would be worth almost $54 million in today’s dollars, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) inflation calculator. But $54 million doesn’t cut it for naming rights to an entire building anymore – if recent gifts are any indication.

Avery Fisher Hall should easily command a gift of $100 million or more for naming rights, Robert Kissane, president of fundraising consultancy CCS. The prominence of the building will play a role in the size of the donation but so will the size of Lincoln Center’s eventual capital campaign. The naming gift “calibrates as much to their fundraising goal as to the stature of their building,” he said.

A capital campaign likely would be more than $500 million, taking into account not just renovations but programming and endowments, Kissane said, adding that a $1 billion campaign might need more than $100 million for naming rights. The rule of thumb for campaigns of $1 billion or more in New York City and the U.S. is that the top five gifts would need to add up to one-third of the overall goal.

Kissane expects the re-naming trend to continue. “It’s not the only instance where a distinguished institution bears a family name but needs a major overhaul,” he said, pointing out other recent examples in New York City where naming rights were given up. Each institution needed a “higher level of investment to maintain its pre-eminence,” he said.

In 2008, David Koch donated $100 million for the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. What’s interesting about that gift is that it was not named in perpetuity, with sunset provision after 50 years. He also gave $65 million to the Museum of Metropolitan Art to reconstruct its new 5th Avenue entrance, creating the David Koch Plaza. Stephen A. Schwarzman gave $100 million to the New York Public Library, which renamed its main branch on 5th Avenue for him.

The original gift created an endowment for maintenance, operations and improvements of Avery Fisher Hall remains in place and will continue to be used for the purposes he specified. The single endowment was broken into two separate endowments in 1981, one for the artists program and another for operation, maintenance and improvement of the hall, according to Lincoln Center spokeswoman Betsy Vorce. As of June 30, 2014, after accounting for financial support for the designated purposes, the artist program endowment is valued at roughly $8 million while the other is valued at about $14 million.

The original endowment remains untouched and the gift remains intact so there is no tax implications on the original gift, according to Mary Lou Falcone, a spokeswoman for the Fisher family.

The statute of limitations on that year tax return long ago expired, said Mike Sorrells, national nonprofit tax director at BDO in Bethesda, Md. Even if the gift was a one-time contribution that did not create an endowment, one could make the case that the donor got 40 years of use of his naming rights and the organization has long ago used the monies for its charitable purposes.

The Avery Fisher Artist Program, separately endowed by Fisher to establish the Avery Fisher Career Grants and the Avery Fisher Prize, will continue with its visibility and name recognition to be expanded.

A family member will serve on the advisory board of the Hall of Fame as well as the selection committee for inductees to the Avery Fisher Classical Music Wing. The renovated concert hall lobby will feature tributes to Fisher and the Fisher Prize winners. The agreement also makes Fisher’s personal, business and Artist Program archives available for use in exhibits and programming at Lincoln Center.