The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) today confirmed that an anonymous patron donor is leading an initiative to explore the possibility of acquiring the former Warner Grand Theatre building on West Wisconsin Avenue to serve as the MSO’s dedicated performance center, once renovated.
This donor-led initiative follows a comprehensive, multi-year effort by the MSO’s board and management team to improve both the financial and operating performance of the MSO, which resulted in two years of consecutive balanced budgets, double digit revenue and new patron growth, sustained expense reductions and continued labor accord.
At the same time, Milwaukee has enjoyed a tremendous boom in both the quality and quantity of performing arts throughout the community over the years. As a result, capacity at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts has become perpetually stretched, especially during peak holiday seasons, challenging the MSO’s ability to produce the necessary revenue. Without control over its own venue and schedule, the MSO’s sustainability will continue to be tested.
After evaluating many venue options, the Warner Grand Theatre emerged as the most ideal venue to create a spectacular, urban venue for the MSO. Its size, accessible location, outstanding acoustics, along with its tremendous grandeur and rich history, would deliver a one-of-a-kind, first class patron experience, while spurring additional development along a vital Downtown corridor.
"The MSO is the only major orchestra in the United States without control over its own performance venue," said Mark Niehaus, president and executive director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. "We have made many improvements to our financial and operating model; however, without control of our venue, these improvements simply will not be enough. We are tremendously humbled and grateful that our donors are leading the charge to not only secure the MSO’s future, but to also make an indelible impact on the cultural vision of our community."
"The heart of Milwaukee is in the midst of an extraordinary renaissance," said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. "The size, scale and impact of the many developments underway will be transformative for both Downtown and the vital surrounding neighborhoods. I am thrilled that Milwaukee may ultimately have its own dedicated Symphony Center, as so many other great cities do, especially knowing the positive impact it will have on our truly magnificent Symphony and our city’s reputation as a vibrant cultural destination."
Should the initiative move forward, more than half of the anticipated total cost has already been secured by those who are invested in ensuring Milwaukee maintains – and grows – a world-class symphony orchestra. The City of Milwaukee will continue to be a key partner in advancing the project. A dedicated campaign is working to raise the remaining necessary funds needed to see the project through to completion.
It is estimated that with control over its own venue, along with the addition of new revenue streams such as facility rental fees and concessions, a dedicated MSO performance space would help drive increases in earned revenue by as much as 60 percent. The MSO would also have greater flexibility to schedule marquee guest performers and conductors who typically require substantial lead notice for performance requests.
A potential win-win for all of Milwaukee
The MSO performs over 135 concerts each year and fosters music appreciation among all ages and walks of life. Through its nationally acclaimed Arts in Community Education (ACE) program, the MSO reaches more than 7,600 students through in-school arts instruction and entertains 40,000 students in school districts throughout the greater Milwaukee area as part of the MSO’s "Concerts for Schools" series.
The MSO is also a vital contributor to the economy, with studies showing a quantifiable economic impact of more than $39 million per year. Over 100,000 patrons annually come to Downtown Milwaukee for MSO concerts, bringing ancillary revenue to the local economy in the form of meals, parking, childcare and other entertainment costs beyond ticket sales.
Just as importantly, the development of a new, dedicated symphony performance venue has the potential to support the entire local performing arts community in a number of ways, including freeing up scheduling opportunities at the Marcus Center for other performing arts tenants, establishing an additional marquee venue for performances other than the MSO, and creating increased space for community and educational programming. The net result should be an even greater increase in the quantity and quality of performing arts programming throughout Milwaukee.
"The phrase we hear most often from potential donors is that this will be a 'game-changer' for the MSO and for the broader performing arts community," said Andy Nunemaker, chair of the MSO Board of Directors and CEO of Dynamis Software Corporation. "Benefactors who give to a dedicated symphony performance center aren’t just giving to a building – they’re investing in a broader vision whereby we not only protect the artistic and financial future MSO, but elevate Milwaukee’s reputation as a vibrant, culturally-significant home and destination."
About the Warner Grand Theatre
The centerpiece of the Warner Grand Theatre building, built in 1930, is a concert hall featuring outstanding acoustics, beautiful architecture and expert craftsmanship. Located on West Wisconsin Avenue – arguably one of the most traveled thoroughfares in Milwaukee – it is close to I-94 and I-43, and within walking distance to numerous high-quality restaurants and other entertainment destinations. Plans include attached, covered parking. In addition to the new concert hall, the building would serve as home to the MSO’s community education and administrative office space.
"The Warner Grand Theatre is a beautiful, acoustically-outstanding, historic performance hall that is perfectly suited for symphonic performances and could undoubtedly create magical, memorable experiences for all of our patrons," said Niehaus. "This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to acquire and operate our own venue, which would put us in a position of strength for decades to come. We are convinced it’s an absolute win-win for the MSO, patrons of the performing arts and the City of Milwaukee as a whole."