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Sunday, June 22, 2003
Overcoming the funding odds

By Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times music critic

Everybody called it "the last piece of the puzzle."

During the incredible arts boom of the 1980s and 1990s, the aging Seattle Opera House sat patiently on Mercer Street, occasionally dropping a few bricks from its facade and startling incoming performers with its 1920s prison-camp dressing rooms.

McCaw Hall costs

The Seattle Center Foundation, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera must still raise several million dollars to complete the hall's $127 million remodel:

• Total raised: $112 million

• Public dollars raised: $44 million

• Private dollars raised: $68 million

• Public dollars still to raise: $11 million

• Private dollars still to raise: $4 million

As the region's major theater companies, art museums and orchestra moved into their splendid new and remodeled facilities, Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet waited for their turn. "You're next!" said an estimated dozen patrons to Opera general director Speight Jenkins as they strode into the Seattle Symphony's beautiful new Benaroya Hall back in 1998.

And Seattle Opera and PNB were indeed next. But what nobody counted on was that just as arts activists and Seattle Center backers were maneuvering that last piece of the arts-facilities puzzle into place, the arts boom of the 1990s collapsed with a positively operatic bang. The dot-com bust, the stock market downturn, the Sept. 11 attacks all ushered in a new economic reality for the arts — one in which all the optimistic financial projections for funding the Opera House remodel were suddenly, disastrously, out of date.

Just before the doors of opportunity began closing, two important pieces of the hall's financial picture arrived. Voters passed a Nov. 2, 1999, Proposition One levy, dedicating $29 million to the transformation of the Opera House. And on May 11, 2000, the four McCaw brothers (Bruce, Craig, John and Keith) gave $20 million to the project, naming the hall in honor of their mother, Marion Oliver McCaw Garrison.

By the time of the January 2002 groundbreaking ceremony, the chill outside was equaled by a financial chill that had settled over the then-$125 million remodel. The Seattle Center Foundation, along with Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera, had undertaken the task of raising $70 million in private gifts, with $55 million planned from public sources. Along the way, that $125 million was bumped up to $127 million, and the private-funds goal to $72 million.

The big gifts started to come in from private sources: $10 million from the Kreielsheimer Foundation, $5 million from Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, $2.5 million from the Nesholm Family Foundation, and gifts in the $1-$2 million range from the Allen Foundation for the Arts, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Boeing Company Charitable Trust, Microsoft, the Norcliffe Foundation, Cell Therapeutics, Inc., and the Neukom Family.

Marion McCaw Garrison put forth $1 million of her own, in honor of the (now) late and (always) beloved Seattle Opera administrator Kathy Magiera. Nearly $68 million — about 94 percent — of the private money has been raised at this writing, a figure Sherrie Boyer of the Seattle Center Foundation calls "just amazing, in our current economy."

Problems raising public funds

That $55 million in public funds proved a bigger stumbling block. The figure might have been right on target in the 1990s, but as the millennium turned, it became increasingly clear that public sources were strapped for cash. Opera House backers figured on $12 million from the state and $5 million from the county. Those goals have proved unrealistic; each has given $2 million, though Boyer has said they're hoping the money gradually will come in.

Thus far, a total of about $44 million in public money has come through from city, county, state and federal sources. Last November, the city council approved a $27.8 million "bridge loan" to complete the gaps in funding so that McCaw Hall could be finished on time. The hall is owned by the city; nonetheless, if public and private fund-raising falls short, both Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet have pledged to cover the difference by paying higher rents or other fees.

Because the Pacific Northwest arts community was just concluding two decades that will go down in history as the Great Arts Boom, a phenomenon that has left behind a nearly $1 billion legacy of new concert halls, theaters and performing-arts centers, everyone overestimated the amount of public money available.

And Seattle-area arts events were generating significant revenue: A 1999 Corporate Council for the Arts survey showed the arts in King County alone spawning $338.2 million annually in business sales (up by 62 percent since a similar 1992 survey) and $170.8 million in labor income, up by 54 percent. Those new theaters and halls were teeming with life, drawing in record audiences of 5.9 million annually in both counties. Arts fans also were spending nearly twice as much in 1999 as they did back in 1992: $203.8 million on tickets, food and other attendance-related outlays.

McCaw Hall backers, looking over their shoulder at the Benaroya Hall funding only a few years earlier, saw $5 million from the county and $8.1 million from the state. It seemed reasonable to assume that they might be able to do as well, or a little better, for the home of both the Opera and Ballet. And, in fact, they may, given enough time: Boyer now estimates the remaining $11 million in public funding may be in "by 2005 or 2006."

Creating a 'Civic Auditorium'

It's a long, long trail to 2006 from the 1881 origins of McCaw Hall. In one of the city's first instances of private arts funding, saloon owner James Osborne donated part of his estate to the city of Seattle for a "Civic Auditorium." That hall, built in 1928, underwent a mostly-cosmetic 1962 remodel as the Seattle Opera House (see the timeline for historical details), but remained inadequate in such areas as the backstage, seismic safety and disabled access. After discovering that it would cost nearly as much to rebuild the technical and backstage portions of the hall as to do a complete remodel, the decision was made to go for the latter.

So now we stand on the threshold of a new hall. What saloonkeeper Osborne might have thought of the metal mesh scrims, the interesting color combinations and the venturesome seating design is something we can only guess. But for Seattle Opera, PNB, three resident festivals and a host of other touring and local users, it'll be Home Sweet Home.


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