A harmonious ending

Lincoln Center negotiates to rename a hallowed hall

By PON Staffon / Dealmaking

If you’ve ever felt trapped in a long-standing relationship, you may know the frustrating feeling of watching tempting opportunities pass you by. Executives at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City recently experienced the relief that can come from gracefully ending a partnership that has outlived its usefulness, as described by Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times.

Change in a minor key
Soon after the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s new concert hall opened in Lincoln Center in 1962, it became apparent that the acoustics were problematic. In 1973, Avery Fisher, the founder of the Fisher Electronics company, donated $10.5 million toward improvements on the condition that the hall be named for him “in perpetuity.” Fisher, who established an endowment for Lincoln Center and became a beloved figure on its campus, died in 1994.

In early 2001, two of Fisher’s three children, Charles Avery Fisher and Nancy Fisher, became alarmed by press reports that Lincoln Center was planning to spend $355 million to either substantially renovate Avery Fisher Hall or raze and rebuild it. The hall was growing shabby, and its sound continued to disappoint. The project was to be part of a larger $1.2 billion redevelopment of Lincoln Center.

Of particular concern to Fisher’s heirs was the rumor that the center hoped to attract a significant donor for the project by offering the right to rename the hall. In a letter to the chair of the center’s board, the Fishers noted that Lincoln Center still held a substantial endowment from their father and expressed concern that future board members who didn’t know their father or his family might “seek a change of direction that could seriously prejudice our family.” After repeatedly failing to get a straight answer about naming rights from the center, the Fishers threatened to file a lawsuit.

In the years that followed, redevelopment of the rest of Lincoln Center proceeded around Avery Fisher Hall. The Philharmonic’s board approved a redesign of Avery Fisher Hall in 2005, but the plan stalled, in part because of the naming-rights issue.

A fitting finale
Fast-forward to June 2014, when Jed Bernstein, the president of Lincoln Center, ran into Nancy Fisher at a dinner party. According to the Times, Bernstein invited Fisher and other family members to his office for discussions. The negotiations that unfolded over the next three months were far more amicable than they had been in 2001. In the past, “it was us and them,” Nancy Fisher said. “It’s not like that anymore.”

Determined to make the right decision, the three Fisher siblings gave their spouses and five children a voice in the negotiations. The family’s primary concern, they said, was to further their patriarch’s goal of enhancing the performance of classical music at Lincoln Center. Many of them had grown concerned that the hall that bore their father’s name looked like “an old slipper,” in Nancy Fisher’s words, alongside the newly renovated buildings of Lincoln Center.

In the end, the family decided that Avery Fisher would have approved of the renovation. They agreed to allow the center to drop his name from the hall in exchange for $15 million. Other enticements included Fisher’s induction into a new Lincoln Center Hall of Fame and a March 2015 Philharmonic concert in honor of Fisher and his family.

Lincoln Center can now move ahead with its planned $500 million gut rehab of the hall. But first it must find donors willing to make major gifts. Negotiations should be easier, thanks to the availability of naming rights, but there is one deal term that Lincoln Center will almost certainly demand: a sunset provision that will allow the naming rights to potentially be transferred to a new donor after a set number of years.

4 keys to making beautiful music:

1. Beware “in perpetuity.” Because times and conditions change, avoid agreements that last many years or, worse, forever. Instead, build in frequent opportunities to revisit your contract.

2. Keep communication open. Lincoln Center’s initial evasiveness toward the Fisher family likely stalled its renovation for years. A friendly overture was enough to free the parties from their entrenched positions.

3. Target deeper interests. Recognizing that a contract buyout alone would not fulfill the Fishers’ sense of familial duty, Lincoln Center looked for ways to perpetuate their father’s memory.

4. Focus on the spirit of old agreements. The Fishers reached a profitable and satisfying deal after moving beyond a literal reading of their father’s contract and considering his broader goals.