Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Hopes to Move Into Historic Grand Theatre

Dec 19, 2016

Mark Niehaus couldn't be more emphatic. The president and executive director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra leans into the microphone and makes eye contact across the desk: "This is not a vanity project. This is not, oh the acoustics are great and we really want to play somewhere that sounds better. That happens to be true, but that's not the driving force behind it."

The "it" Niehaus refers to is the plan for the orchestra to purchase and renovate the now empty Grand Theatre on West Wisconsin Avenue to be its permanent home. For Niehaus, and the entire orchestra, finding a dedicated space is crucial to the continuing health of the organization.

"We really took a look at our business model five years ago," Niehaus says. "The finances of the orchestra were continually being tested and we wanted to find a way to solve it long-term. You'll never solve it forever because the world changes around you, but we certainly knew we could do some work to make the orchestra more stable."

Like many orchestras of its size, the MSO depends on three income streams: earned income through ticket sales and concert fees, annual donations from foundations and individuals, and investment income from their endowment.

But unlike many of their peer orchestras, the MSO's endowment is very small and their ability to get into their performance space, Uihlein Hall at the Marcus Center, is limited because of other organizations' use of the space. This puts a very large burden on the third leg of the financial stool, annual donations.

As Niehaus points out, that's no way to run a business: "We needed to wean ourselves off of the annual contributed income, increase our investment income, and increase our earned income." And so the drive to find their own space intensified.

The Grand has been a possibility for the MSO since at least 2001. But the space, while still structurally sound and kept up by its current owner, has sat empty for 20 years. So there is some refurbishment to be done, including adding modern bathrooms and seats. And there is more money to raise.

But if all goes to plan, the orchestra will move in by 2019. And Niehaus says that will not only be good for the MSO, but for the economic health of downtown too.

"There's a huge desire on everyone's part to see our former main street, West Wisconsin Avenue, come back to life." he says. "When you think about how to revitalize a neighborhood, you could look in Milwaukee just a mile to the east at Broadway. When the Broadway Theatre went in on one end and the Public Market went in on the other - those were the anchors. Those were the first two things to go in, and now look at what's happened in the middle. We think we can do the same thing for West Wisconsin Avenue."