In late 2020, as coronavirus infections surged and cultural institutions shuttered, the fate of the long-delayed renovation of David Geffen Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic, was uncertain.
Then came a $50 million gift from Joseph Tsai, a Taiwanese-born billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, and his wife, Clara Wu Tsai, a philanthropist. The donation moved the project forward, accelerating construction so the hall could reopen in October, a year and a half ahead of schedule.
In a nod to role of the Tsai family, Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic announced on Wednesday that the main auditorium in the hall would be named the Wu Tsai Theater.
“It really took courage,” Katherine Farley, the chairwoman of Lincoln Center’s board, said of the gift in an interview. “And that courage inspired other people, and it made a big, big difference.”
The gift represents one of the Tsai family’s biggest ventures so far into the performing arts. Joseph Tsai, who trained as a lawyer and serves as vice chairman of Alibaba, is more frequently associated with athletics. He is the primary owner of the Brooklyn Nets and has played an important role in helping the NBA expand in China. The couple has previously contributed to universities, hospitals and social justice projects, among other gifts.
Clara Wu Tsai, who is also a member of Lincoln Center’s board, said in an interview that she and her husband were moved by the opportunity to create jobs for New Yorkers and help make the performing arts more accessible. Also being named for the Tsais: a concert series on increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the arts and bringing together performers of different genres.
“My dream is that we have a full hall of diverse audiences and that we get programming in there that really showcases the versatility and flexibility that the hall was created to offer,” she said.
Geffen Hall’s $550 million renovation will bring both aesthetic and acoustic improvements, with wavy beech wood walls and seats that wrap around the stage. Other additions meant to draw people in include a 50-foot digital screen in the lobby that can broadcast concerts to the public and a studio looking out onto Broadway.
The hall is set to reopen on Oct. 7, with a concert featuring Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” among other pieces, before an audience of emergency medical workers and construction workers who took part in the hall’s renovation. Two galas and an open house weekend will follow later in the month.
Clara Wu Tsai said she was confident that audiences would turn out, despite lingering concerns about the coronavirus and changing habits around going to live performances.
“Everybody’s waiting to hear what will be one of the best concert halls in the world,” she said. “The timing is going to be good.”