Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra acquires former Warner Grand Theatre

New MSO performance center slated to open fall 2020

The MSO will open in the Grand Theatre building in 2020.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has acquired the former Warner Grand Theatre building on West Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee to convert into its new performance center.

In an announcement on Friday, the MSO touted the project, saying it will set the organization up for “better long-term financial, operational and creative success.”

The MSO will open in the Grand Theatre building in 2020.

The MSO announced in December 2016 that an anonymous patron donor was leading an initiative to buy the vacant Art Deco-style theater, located in a 12-story building on West Wisconsin Avenue across from the Shops of Grand Avenue, to convert it into its new concert hall.

The organization launched a special $120 million fundraising campaign to secure enough money to acquire, design and renovate the theater, as well as paying for an endowment for the symphony. The MSO has raised $93.5 million to date.

The MSO is expected to purchase the building by Dec. 31. The grand opening of the new Milwaukee Symphony Center is expected in fall of 2020.

“More people than ever before are choosing to attend our inspiring performances and there is tremendous community interest in fostering a thriving MSO. Closing on the acquisition of the Warner Grand Theater is a significant step in both our artistic and financial future,” said Mark Niehaus, president and executive director of the MSO. “We remain humbled and grateful to our donors and the greater Milwaukee community, whose response to this effort to-date has been amazing. Together, we are investing in both the MSO and Milwaukee’s reputation as a vibrant, culturally-significant home and destination.”

Rendering by Kahler Slater.

Having control over its own venue, paired with new revenue streams from facility rentals, will drive increased annual earned revenue by as much as 60 percent, according to the MSO.

The dedicated venue will also provide more flexibility to schedule marquee guest performers and conductors who typically require substantial multi-year lead notice for performance requests, the organization said.

“Like so many others, my family and I share a vision for Milwaukee that centers around a vibrant cultural life and a downtown where people young and old want to live, work, grow their families and build their lives,” said David Uihlein, philanthropist and recently retired owner of Uihlein-Wilson Architects. “We firmly believe that the creation of the Milwaukee Symphony Center will not only positively impact our community, but is the right move to create a financial and operating model that befits the MSO moving forward.”

“It is that combination of meaningful community impact and smart business decision that inspired my family and me to make the largest philanthropic gift we have ever made,” Uihlein added. “I am grateful that The Bradley Foundation and others share the view that this project is a worthy investment, and I hope others do the same.”

Niehaus credited multiple individuals and organizations in the effort to purchase and restore the theater, including David Uihlein and his wife Julia Uihlein, and The Bradley Foundation, as well as Steve and Greg Marcus and The Marcus Corporation for donating their ownership of the Warner Grand Theater to the campaign.  He also recognized the counsel and stewardship of Steve Chernof of Godfrey & Kahn and Bob Monnat of Mandel Group.

Along with restoring the venue, the project will include additional community, education and collaboration spaces, more parking options, onsite catering, and curb-side drop off/pick up options.

The MSO said a grand opening date of fall 2020 is ideal, because a deliberate construction schedule will bring cost savings.

The MSO was approved by the State of Wisconsin for more than $8 million in historic tax credits for the project. It also recently received conditional approval for federal historic tax credits.

The organization said the costs associated with developing the Milwaukee Symphony Center are estimated to be 50 to 66 percent less expensive than comparable new construction venue projects across the country.

“From day one, this campaign has been about more than a building,” said Andy Nunemaker, chairman of the board of the MSO. “Rather, we are setting a new path for the MSO that puts it in control of its own artistic and operational destiny, free of extraordinary fundraising or other dramatic measures needed to compensate for challenges associated with an evolving business model.”

The organization is also expanding its endowment for future programming and eliminating the liability associated with the MSO’s previous pension plan.


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