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Ronald Perelman Donates $75 Million for Arts Complex at World Trade Center Site - The New York Times

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Ronald Perelman Donates $75 Million for Arts Complex at World Trade Center Site

Image Ronald O. Perelman last year.CreditCreditDorothy Hong for The New York Times

By Michael Cooper

  • June 29, 2016

Less than a year since he stepped down as the chairman of Carnegie Hall after clashing with its staff, Ronald O. Perelman, the billionaire businessman, announced Wednesday that he was donating $75 million to revive plans to build a performing arts center at the World Trade Center site.

His donation immediately catapulted the long-stalled performing arts center, one of the last major pieces of unfinished business at the World Trade Center site, from aspirational to achievable and places him among a new generation of power brokers and billionaires who are reshaping — and renaming — the cultural infrastructure of New York. In recognition of his gift, the new theater complex, which will sit on one of the most emotionally resonant and most visited spots in the city, will be named for Mr. Perelman.

“I think that this is a project that must happen,” Mr. Perelman said in an interview, adding that he had been drawn to it by the vision of the role that art could play at the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and in the continuing rebuilding of the area. “It is more than just a pure artistic center to serve a community. It is that, but at the same time it’s much more than that.”

In the last few years, the city’s wealthy elite have chiseled their names into some of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions — or sought to build their own. The New York Public Library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue has been renamed for Stephen A. Schwarzman, the old New York State Theater for David H. Koch and Avery Fisher (nee Philharmonic) Hall at Lincoln Center for David Geffen.

The new Perelman center is also joining several other projects that are being planned, including Culture Shed, a performance space at the Hudson Yards on the West Side, and a new park on Pier 55 near 14th Street with three outdoor spaces underwritten by the billionaire Barry Diller. Some arts executives have questioned whether the city had the audiences and donor base to sustain so many new cultural spaces.

But culture has long been envisioned as a key part of the rebuilt World Trade Center and was an important feature of the architect Daniel Libeskind’s 2003 master plan for the site. The performing arts center was placed on the back burner, though, as officials wrangled over the many other thorny issues involved in redevelopment. Groups including the old New York City Opera, the Signature Theater Company and the Joyce Theater all explored anchoring the new complex, but nothing came of it. The architect Frank Gehry was hired to design it, then his design was shelved. The project, which was championed by the Bloomberg administration and eagerly sought by downtown residents, was kept alive through the administrations of four governors and two mayors.

The seeds of Mr. Perelman’s involvement were planted a decade ago when Michael R. Bloomberg, who was the mayor, became the chairman of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to restore confidence in the project, which had gone off track. Mr. Bloomberg recalled in an interview that one of the first donors he turned to was Mr. Perelman, who quickly agreed to donate $5 million to the museum project. Mr. Perelman stayed involved, expressing enthusiasm for the idea of a performing arts center at the site, and, as the project finally took shape recently, he agreed to make the lead gift.

“Perelman’s a funny guy — if he’s interested in the institution and its mission, he’s a very easy sell,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “There have been times I had to sell him when he didn’t care very much, and that took a little more work.”

The backers of the new Perelman center downtown see it as filling an important niche for a midsize theater that can accommodate the kinds of multidisciplinary works many artists experiment with today. The complex, which is being designed by REX, a Brooklyn-based architecture firm, is to include three flexible, technologically advanced theaters that can individually seat 499 people, 299 people and 100 people, and which can be combined into one space that can accommodate 1,200. The plan calls for the center to present or produce dance, concerts, new or early chamber opera, and theater, and to become the main venue of the Tribeca Film Festival each April.

The performance plans have yet to come fully into focus: David Lan, the artistic director at the Young Vic in London, did a stint as its temporary artistic director, and Jenny Gersten, a former executive director of Friends of the High Line and artistic director of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, is a producing consultant. But the presence of Mr. Perelman, a hard-charging businessman who is known to favor a hands-on approach with groups that he supports, suggests that there will be a powerful, wealthy patron pushing for it to succeed.

Mr. Perelman left Carnegie after spending less than a year as its chairman after clashing with its staff and other board members — and before making an additional donation to the hall that had been expected to be in the $30 million range. He said in the interview that his support of the new performing arts center was unrelated to his departure from Carnegie and that he probably would have made the donation to support the new complex in any case.

With Mr. Perelman’s donation, the project is now well on its way to covering its estimated $240 million price tag, said Maggie Boepple, the center’s president and director. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation committed $100 million in federal funds awarded after the Sept. 11 attacks for the project’s design, construction and administrative costs.

“Ronald’s gift is going to open the doors,” Ms. Boepple said. “We have some other donors in the wings.”

Mr. Perelman, who raised eyebrows with his call to stage more pop music at Carnegie Hall, said that he envisioned attracting a wide variety of artists. “I would hope it is the first venue of choice for the Bruce Springsteens and the Bon Jovis and the Yo-Yo Mas and the Lang Langs, and at the same time it’s a place where we could have produced a “Hamilton” project or where we could produce a new ballet,” he said. He added that he was excited by the technological possibilities of the plans, which call for adding cutting-edge streaming capabilities that will allow the center to capture and disseminate performances in a much more immersive, sophisticated way than is done at most theaters.

Mr. Perelman said that he had been particularly taken by the designs of the architect, Joshua Prince-Ramus, who was formerly a partner of Rem Koolhaas, and recalled a recent meeting in which they went over the renderings of the complex, which have not yet been publicly released, and then discussed the technological possibilities with Nicholas Negroponte, a founder of the MIT Media Lab, who had been visiting Mr. Perelman on other business.

The news that the performing arts center finally had a lead gift, and was likely to get built, is sure to cheer downtown residents who have long seen it as a priority, said Catherine McVay Hughes, the chairwoman of Community Board 1. “The community that stayed was steadfast in supporting a cultural component,” she said. “It was important that something alive gets created here, right here, at the World Trade Center site.”

A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 20 of the New York edition with the headline: Perelman Donates $75 Million for Arts Center. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe