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Huntington Theatre gets $10 million gift

Posted by Laura Collins-Hughes  April 28, 2011 10:35 AM

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At a time when arts organizations nationwide have been struggling with shaky funding, the Huntington Theatre Company has received the largest gift in its 29-year history: $10 million in endowment funding from the Calderwood Charitable Foundation.

The contribution, announced today, comes in the same month that, in Philadelphia, one of the nation's most renowned orchestras disclosed that it would file for bankruptcy. In Seattle, a cash-strapped, Tony Award-winning regional theater canceled the rest of its season and laid off its staff.

"It's really scary times out there," said Peter DuBois, the artistic director of the Huntington, which in 2009, in response to the poor economy, slashed $1.5 million from its $13 million operating budget.

The $10 milllion gift doubles the size of the Huntington's endowment. The Calderwood Charitable Foundation is making the Huntington its biggest beneficiary with this donation, aimed at providing stability for the theater, which it has long supported. The foundation has distributed over $50 million among more than a dozen area nonprofits since 2002.

The Huntington gift equals Bank of America's contribution to the Museum of Fine Arts last fall, though it is eclipsed by some other gifts in the MFA's recent $500 million campaign, and by a $45 million donation to the Harvard Art Museum in 2008.

The Calderwood contribution is intended to provide the Huntington with about $500,000 in annual operating support -- replacing the same amount the foundation has given it in each of the past three years. The gift is meant to perpetuate that funding, foundation trustee John Cornish said.

While the foundation is, in effect, substituting one kind of donation for another, "it's an enormous amount of money if you don't have to go out and find it again," said Michael Maso, the Huntington's managing director.

The contribution was announced in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. The pavilion is named for the late Belmont philanthropist whose foundation gave the Huntington $4 million in 2004 for the facility's construction.

The Huntington runs the two-theater pavilion at a loss each year, DuBois said. But it can afford to do that, charging minimal rent to the other companies in residence there, because of the steady support it's received from the Calderwood Foundation, he noted.

The $10 million donation "gives us the opportunity to really dream more ambitiously for our artists, for the community, for the theaters we work with, for the BCA," he said.

Stanford Calderwood was a former WGBH president whose firm, Trinity Investment Management, had $8 billion in assets under management when he sold it in the late 1990s and went into philanthropy, Cornish said. Calderwood gave mainly to nonprofits dedicated to the arts and writing.

Maso knew Calderwood for about a decade before his death from pancreatic cancer in 2002. In early 2001, Maso said, Calderwood phoned to say he wanted to speed up the process of two donations he had promised to make. One was to name the theater's artistic directorship in honor of his wife, Norma Jean, who had been a Huntington trustee before contracting Alzheimer's disease. The other was to support playwriting.

"I said, 'Stan, what's the hurry?' " Maso recalled. "And he said, ' 'Cause in a year I'll be dead.' All I can tell you is it was said without a hint of self-pity."

The Calderwoods had no children; Norma Jean Calderwood died in 2006. The money from the foundation that bears their name has helped to pay not only for the running of the Calderwood Pavilion, with its programming focus on new writers and young artists, but also for the Huntington's new-play development and productions, Maso said.

DuBois cited the theater's current production, "Sons of the Prophet," a world premiere with a cast of eight -- a large and expensive ensemble by contemporary new-play standards -- as an example of the kind of work the funding enables the Huntington to do, adding to the theatrical canon.

"It feels like it's a real investment in Boston being a relevant town to the art form," he said.

Maso, however, said that the donation needs to act as a catalyst for other contributions.

"We don't want people to think that the Huntington is set for life," he said, adding that the theater will need to raise just as much non-Calderwood money this year as it did last year.

And it won't be able to count on any further funding from the Calderwood Foundation. The charity, Cornish said, will be winding down in the next four years or so, and that's in keeping with Stanford Calderwood's wishes.

"His mission for the last several years of his life was to give it all away," Cornish said. "One of the last things he said to me was, 'John, I don't want this foundation to go on forever.' "

The Huntington's budget will be back to $13 million next year, partly because of board members' support for marking the company's 30th anniversary with a season that feels celebratory, Du Bois said. But, he added, that level may not be sustainable.

Even so, he said, the theater has a healthier ambience than it did in 2009, when all-staff meetings brought grim news. This week, in anticipation of announcing the $10 million gift, the Huntington staff was told they'd be getting some news that would make them happy.

"We're on stable ground now," DuBois said. "You can feel it in the building."

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