The Oscar de la Renta and James Galanos gowns can take the year off. White-tie and tails may stay in the garment bag. Next season’s Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball has been canceled, organizers say.
Instead, leaders of the Academy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which owns the historic venue, will take a year off to rethink the concert and ball. It is not clear when, or if, the ball will be back in the format that made it the city’s premier society event for decades.
“We are going to take this pause and evaluate,” said Academy chair Caroline B. “Cackie” Rogers. “Our net and our gross have been going down, and ticket sales have gone down a bit, and costs, like everything else, have gone up.”
Also, Academy and orchestra leaders are aware of how philanthropic priorities have shifted toward social causes over pure arts and culture.
“The younger generation tends to be sticking a little bit more close to home in the suburbs and supporting their children’s school, which is fabulous, and supporting their community and hospital," Rogers says. "So we have to make people understand what we are. The Academy is above all a community gathering place, a community center. We support education. And somehow we need to get this message out in a stronger format.”
Rogers said that a working committee would begin considering the ball’s future at a meeting in March. At this point, she said, she cannot say whether Philadelphia will see another Academy Ball.
“We’ll be considering many options, things like the format of the ball, the timing of how the concert and ball should be presented,” she said. “One thing I can assure you of, for certain, is a special event celebrating the Academy of Music in our future.”
Receipts from the ball, often around $3 million, may look impressive, but after expenses the event typically produces only a few hundred thousand dollars. And so the question is: What kind of event could deliver better proceeds while still putting the focus on the building and what goes on in it?
“We need to be really creative and really ambitious in the way we gather the community to raise the money we need to support the fabric and work of the Academy of Music,” said Philadelphia Orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky. “We don’t yet know what form that will take, but promise it will be special and be fun and give this treasured landmark the love we all feel.”
The ball had already been announced for Jan. 23, 2021. Something involving the Academy and the orchestra will happen that weekend, Rogers said, but exactly what has not been determined.
“Wow. I am in shock,” said Fred Stein, whose firm has organized the event in the past, upon learning about the change. “I think the right different format may work very well. But I think changing it completely — what, denim and black tie optional? — becomes just another concert with food afterward. It needs something as out-of-the-box as the white tie and tails are now.”
“I am 100% behind what they are going to be doing,” said R. Anderson Pew, a longtime Academy key supporter and trustee. “Pause, study the situation, and come up with some new ideas, because we have to move on.”
A fixture on Philadelphia’s winter calendar since 1957, the Academy Concert and Ball failed to happen only once before, in 2016, when it was canceled in the face of an approaching winter storm. Launched to celebrate the building’s centenary, the concert and ball have raised millions for the Academy and the orchestra while focusing attention on the city’s prime and oldest surviving concert hall.
The event typically attracts a good slice of the city and region’s cultural, political, business, and philanthropic sectors.
Over the decades, its starry guest list has gone from being stocked with old Philadelphia names like Strawbridge, Drexel, Scott, and Morris to something more corporate. Wells Fargo, Independence Blue Cross, and Sunoco have been underwriters, as has The Inquirer.
The artists have changed, too. Contralto Marian Anderson performed at the first anniversary concert, along with Danny Kaye, Dinah Shore, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, and violinist Isaac Stern. Van Cliburn, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Jessye Norman have headlined the event.
Harpo Marx appeared at the 105th anniversary concert, Luciano Pavarotti sang at the 118th, and Klaus Tennstedt conducted the 130th.
The hall has been undergoing nearly continuous restoration for more than a quarter-century, and in more recent years ball organizers have tried to engender love for the building from a younger generation by bringing in entertainers like Hugh Jackman, Rod Stewart, Jill Scott, and Sting. More recently, Helen Mirren and John Lithgow have performed, and one year Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles attended. This year’s ball, featuring Lithgow, took place Jan. 25.
Despite the money raised, the Academy — which is booked and managed by the Kimmel Center — is looking at a substantial wish list of renovations, including an investigation of the exterior to develop a plan for weather-sealing the structure.
“This past year, we’ve engaged some engineering people to do studies about safety and integrity and the character of the Academy of Music, and we have a lot of work to do,” said Rogers. “It’s important work, and work like this costs money.”
Such work is unending in a building as historic, loved, and heavily used as this one.
“The outside of the building is in deplorable condition,” wrote the Academy’s then-president, Stuart F. Louchheim, in 1959 in a plea for funding published in the ball book for the 102nd Anniversary Concert and Ball. “There is still much to be done — work that is a ‘must’ if the Academy is to survive for another century.”