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September 23, 2010

Donations to Baltimore's Lyric, DC's Kennedy Center set standard worth emulating

A lot rich folks out there are sitting tight on their gazzilions, relishing the fact that they're part of a small aristocracy, American-style, that gets to hoard a huge percentage of the nation's wealth (I imagine several of them really do believe they can take it with 'em), and deeply dreading the prospect that they might soon have to pay a tiny bit more in taxes. But it's great to see that other members of the well-off set are still engaged in sharing their gains through the noble, priceless practice of philanthropy.

On Tuesday, movers and shakers from the Baltimore area gathered at the old Lyric Opera House to honor Patricia and Arthur Modell for their $3.5 million donation toward the renovation of the venue, which now bears their name. And on Wednesday, the Kennedy Center announced a remarkable $10 million gift from its own chairman, David M. Rubenstein, in support of the National Symphony Orchestra, new programming initiatives and more.

Such acts of kindness mean more these days than ever, since all cultural organizations and endeavors face extra financial pressure in recessionary times. (I know, the recession officially ended some time ago, according to great experts, but what do those policy wonks know about real life?) If we're lucky, more people from the upper echelon will be motivated to emulate Rubenstein or the Modells -- after all, there's something of a

movement going on, thanks to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, to get the super-rich to donate a substantial portion of their wealth, so the peer pressure is already on.

And, in case any of you upper-crusties need a little inspiration, I'd like to suggest that someone step up with another big gift to the Lyric -- I mean, the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric. A total of $12.5 million is going into the badly needed upgrading of the Lyric's stage area, so we'll end up with a much more versatile house inside next year, but the outside will, alas, still look dreadful. I wish we could go all out an improve the whole place.

Somewhere along the line, a heavy, oh-so-20th-century-in-the-wrong-way exterior was stuck onto this 1894 theater. I know there were good reasons at the time, and I know that the addition proved valuable in several ways -- a proper lobby, for one. But next time you're on the Maryland Avenue side of the Lyric, where scaffolding now indicates the renovation work in progress, look up and see the original red brick rear wall of the opera house. Imagine if something architecturally similar could be seen on the sides and front of the space, providing a truly elegant and distinctive look. Right now, the heavy bulk of the edifice resembles a 1960s office building with an almost brutalist streak. Yuk.

I think of what the Peabody Institute managed to achieve a few years ago during renovation and expansion there -- an effective fusion of the new, the retro and the original. That's my lil' ol' dream for the Lyric. Now all I need is a big-hearted billionaire to fulfill it.

BALTIMORE SUN STAFF PHOTO (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:57 AM | | Comments (2)


It's a shame these same philanthropists didn't emerge a few years ago to save the worthy Baltimore Opera Co. (Echoing an earlier comment from someone else.)

Actually, no imagination is needed to see how the Lyric exterior should have looked. There's an engraving somewhere in a side lobby of the orchestra level (I'm pretty sure it's the stage left side) of what appears to be an architectural rendering of the original design. It shows a quite wonderful Victorian exterior with an imposing facade that would have been at home in Vienna or Paris.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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