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BSO looks to raise up to $400m

Amid arts boom, drive is largest ever for orchestra

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, which has remained on the sidelines during the region's recent arts expansion, will launch a fund-raising campaign that could top out at $400 million, making it the largest in the organization's history.

The campaign would pay for renovations at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, and would boost the organization's endowment, which, at about $400 million, is already the biggest in the orchestra world.

Though the BSO has begun surveying potential donors, the campaign won't be formally approved by its board until this fall or early next year. With a goal of between $250 million and $400 million, it would dwarf the $150 million drive completed in 2001.

Unlike recent fund-raising efforts by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art, the symphony's plans don't include elaborate new building projects or an expansion of its performance facilities. The BSO plans to renovate and restore existing spaces, and to ease congestion in the cramped lobbies of Symphony Hall. At Tanglewood, improvements will be made at the main gate, which also houses a music and bookstore, and in a number of 19th-century properties now used as staff offices on the summer campus.

The orchestra also wants to strengthen its endowment to protect against potential losses in its annual operating budget. In 2006, the BSO had an overall deficit of $1.4 million, the third straight year it finished in the red.

"We already have the best concert hall in the country," BSO managing director Mark Volpe said. "In Tanglewood, we have a shed, a theater, a recital hall, and Ozawa Hall. What we need is to refurbish and renovate. In the modern marketplace, to remain competitive, you have to have amenities for audience members."

The BSO has done work in the past on the 106-year-old Symphony Hall. In 1997, bathrooms were renovated, and last summer the BSO completed a $250,000 project to replace the stage floor for the first time. But Volpe said the Hall needs a more comprehensive maintenance program, and plans to devote a portion of the endowment for building needs.

Local arts and foundation leaders said that the BSO's goal seemed within reach. Boston has been in the midst of an unprecedented arts building boom, with campaigns totaling more than $1 billion launched over the last decade.

The Museum of Fine Arts has raised $409 million of $500 million for its planned expansion, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, which opened its new home last fall on the South Boston waterfront, eclipsed its fund-raising goal, bringing in $65 million.

"There's a tremendous amount of money in this town," said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation. "There was, over the last few years, enormous consternation about all the capital campaigns underway, but I think the evidence is that the major institutions appear to be able to raise astonishing sums of money. The BSO is a powerhouse institution in this town in terms of the call on the philanthropic dollar."

Volpe said it is too early to know exactly how the symphony will spend the money raised. But he said that the BSO plans to replace the Symphony Hall floor and to uncover and restore windows above the second balcony. The windows have been covered since World War II, when the BSO feared German U-boats would see the hall's lights from Boston Harbor.

Social spaces that include the Cabot-Cahners room, where drinks and snacks are served before concerts and during intermission, will be renovated. Backstage, the cramped locker rooms for performers will be upgraded, and Symphony Hall's mechanical systems largely replaced.

The BSO also will consider whether to use more of its property on the Symphony Hall side of Huntington Avenue, Volpe said. Much of the space, which stretches for a block from Massachusetts Avenue to Gainsborough Street, is currently rented out to, among others, Starbucks, Store 24, and Dunkin' Donuts.

"We own it and that begs the question, what should we do with it?" said Volpe.

Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, says the BSO's endowment, while large, is worth increasing.

"Endowment protects you, it allows you to raise ticket prices less frequently and it's there permanently," he said. "It doesn't eliminate annual fund-raising but it can take the pressure off of it."

The BSO won't say when it will make a public announcement of its campaign. But in a sense, it has already been launched. The campaign will include the nearly $40 million raised already for the BSO's artistic excellence fund, which was started in 2005 to sustain the sometimes challenging -- and expensive -- programming that arrived with BSO music director James Levine.

Patricia Jacoby, the MFA's deputy director who has led the museum's capital campaign, said she was pleased to hear of the BSO's plans. She said there is no question that Boston can sustain another campaign of that size considering the symphony's standing.

"No one puts out numbers without thinking they can accomplish it," said Jacoby. "And Boston also has people who are very passionate about the arts. When you put together great wealth and the passion for the arts, you can support more than one organization in town."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at For more on the arts go to theater_arts/exhibitionist

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