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Sills pulled corporations into the arts

Beverly Sills

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Tess Vigeland: The diva next door — as Beverly Sills was known — passed away yesterday. In a statement, the music director of the Met, James Levine, said her mission was always to bring the joy and love of opera to as many people as possible.

She was also an indefatigable fundraiser throughout the arts community and beyond. Making the case to corporate America that the arts were — and are — a worthy investment of time and money.

In 2002, Ms. Sills made that case here on Marketplace. Today, in remembrance, we wanted to hear it again.


Beverly Sills: I once sat next to an important CEO at a fundraising dinner when I was running the New York City Opera. Over the main course, I asked him for some money to mount some exciting new productions. A lot of money. I asked him for a million bucks.

The gentleman wasn't known to be a patron of the arts, but he did have a great sense of humor. And he said to me: "If I support the opera, do I have to come?" And I said, "Of course, you have to come!"

"OK," he said, "I'll give you a deal: I'll give you a million if I don't have to come, but I'll give you $900,000 if I'm expected to attend."

I told him I'd take the $900,000, and we'd see him at the next performance.

And of course, he came with his wife to a beautiful production sung and acted by beautiful, young American singers. The production was "La Bohème."

Soon after, we were seated together at another dinner. This time, my gentleman friend was the host. Everyone had a little trinket on their plate, except me. So when I asked him, how come I didn't have anything? He said, "Look under your damn plate."

And there was a check for the remaining $100,000. Another opera lover had been born.

Let me make something perfectly clear, corporate America: I'm not just asking for your money, I want your body, too.

That's because if you come to our performances, our museums and our festivals, I know your families, your business associates and employees will, too. You'll get hooked on our products and services, just as we and our audiences will get hooked on yours.

Think of it this way. If someone took a snapshot of our world today, would we want to be remembered for our capacity for self-destruction, or for our outpouring of art, music, theater and dance?

Art is an indelible record of who we are, what we believe and what we hold dear. Ancient Egyptian art is a perfect example of how civilizations have communicated down through the ages.

So, corporate America, think of your support for the arts as a way to both give and reap rewards. It's your performance of a lifetime.

Vigeland: Beverly Sills, speaking on Marketplace June 24, 2002. Ms. Sills died yesterday of lung cancer. She was 78.

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