The Carnegie Hall You Thought You Knew

What makes New York City one of the most exciting and cherished places in the world is its rich history of contributing to arts and culture. It’s a magical city that draws people from near and far. From Broadway plays to live jazz at Dizzy’s or emerging artists performing in the village on any given night, New York City locals and visitors can experience a cultural energy that’s far beyond the most obvious narrative.

New York City’s acknowledged position as the mecca for arts and entertainment in America means that aspiring artists and performers flock here in untold numbers, willing to sacrifice everything for the opportunity to present their work at the highest levels in their fields. However, there is often the mistaken impression that accessibility and engagement is restricted to the glittering elite who created and endowed the city’s great institutions. Yet this could not be further from the truth, particularly in regard to the iconic Carnegie Hall. There is actually a welcoming environment embracing all philanthropists and a new breed of social impact supporters, reflective of artists and donors who care about music, the arts, culture and inclusion.

Carnegie Hall and other institutions throughout New York City may be forever associated with Andrew Carnegie, and the Gilded Age’s other philanthropists simply by virtue of the contributions they, and others like them, made to the development of our great city and its culture. But there is another narrative that goes along with Carnegie Hall, one that is punctuated by having just celebrated its 125th anniversary at last week’s electrifying gala (which BTW, was hosted by Richard Gere!).

The event provided the perfect moment to look both forward and back, and to connect the amazing history of a venerable institution with its exciting future. Because, while the general public may regard Carnegie Hall solely as the depository for dreams of hard working musicians, classical music and aspiring conductors, it is also a place filled with the exciting stories of a diverse variety of artists of all genres, along with a long-held dedication to community engagement and education.

At the laying of the building’s cornerstone in 1890, Andrew Carnegie stated, “here all good causes may find a platform.” And they did. From its inception, the Hall provided an open forum for musicians of all backgrounds, paving the way for them to play a role in America’s musical history and cultural legacy. The first African American artist — soprano Sissieretta Jones — performed there in 1892, barely a year after its the Hall’s opening.

The First Jazz Concert

In 1912, James Reese Europe and his Clef Club Orchestra, who were members of the first black musicians’ union, performed a “Concert of Negro Music”. This was actually the first jazz concert there, not Benny Goodman’s in 1938, as popular legend holds. The Hall’s rich tapestry of performances continued through the 1920s, with Paul Robeson and contralto Marian Anderson, who was famously banned from performing in Washington DC’s Constitution Hall eleven years later because of her race.

The 1940s found Duke Ellington making his debut at Carnegie Hall and a steady stream of African American performers has followed since then. Billie Holiday, Harry Belafonte, Ike & Tina Turner, Nina Simone, Shirley Bassey all made live recordings of their performances there.

Carnegie Hall is not only about musical performances, however. Many other events have taken place on the various stages, including lectures, 15 of them by Booker T. Washington alone. Still, in the world of Carnegie Hall today, probably the among many of the most valuable offerings by this amazing organization does not take place within the dazzlingly beautiful structure. It is the programs shared with a far flung community.

Music Education and Community Engagement

Along with its long history of inclusion, Carnegie Hall has made an enormously powerful impact with music education and community engagement. Extensive education and community programs created by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute are a central priority in the non-profit’s mission to make great music accessible to all. Students, young musicians, educators, parents and audiences of all ages will find programs available for free or at a minimal cost.

These educational and community programs reached half a million people in New York City, across the country, and around the world just in the 2015–2016 season alone. A snapshot of this work includes:

The Lullaby Project, engages with pregnant women and new mothers in their teenage years or who are facing challenging circumstances such as homelessness or incarceration, inviting them to work closely with professional musicianss, creating personal lullabies for their infants, to strengthen bonding between mother and baby.

Musical Connections features yearlong intensive songwriting, composition and choral workshops for those incarcerated within the justice system. The very real impact of these programs goes a long way to returning the institutions to their original purpose of rehabilitation.

As Clive Gillinson, Carnegie’s Executive and Artistic Director stated during the 125th gala remarks “we will soon serve more people outside our 4 walls than inside.” Given Carnegie’s new partnerships with organizations such as the Google Cultural Institute and the launch of its major new projects like its digital archives, webcasting of concerts to audiences around the globe, and the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, it will continue as the world’s premier musical establishment.

Ushering In A New Breed of Transformative Philanthropists

Carnegie Hall’s long history of providing world-class performances and significant positive influence all over the globe, easily made the recent lavish gala a huge fundraising success. Notable philanthropists Mercedes Bass, Annette de la Renta, Beatrice Santo Domingo, and Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller were joined by a newer generation of benefactors. Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa, members of The Giving Pledge, hosted tables, as did Gbenga and Aisha Oyebode. Trustee Robert F. Smith, Chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, and his wife Hope personally contributed a leadership gift for the 125th Anniversary Gala in support of Carnegie Hall’s artistic and education program.

Carnegie Hall Re-Imagined

I am excited to see how Carnegie Hall contributes to another 125 years of NYC’s inclusion narrative and cultural energy; inside and outside its 4 walls, online and offline, from programming and unique collaborations, to inclusion at its finest. In a world where people are increasingly in need of being more connected in meaningful and inspiring ways, the magic that music and Carnegie Hall in particular can produce is waiting to be unfolded. It’s a “re-imagining” of the next 125 years that only the greatest music hall on earth can deliver.

Note: Carnegie Hall is a client of my firm. I am proud of our work with this incredible and iconic institution and am thrilled that I can share valuable insight that might be less obvious to society at large.

CEO @ Culture Shift Labs | Growth Strategist | Biz Dev Exec | Advisor to Leaders | Author | SME: Diversity & Innovation | Serving Early Adopting Execs.