Tobin atonement

When the City and County rolled out the campaign for the 2008 venue-tax extension, a performing-arts center grand enough to house our opera and symphony was one of the largest items on the ballot at a proposed $100 million. Bruce Bugg, chairman and trustee of the once-embattled Tobin Endowment, had been asked to lead the capital campaign to raise the rest of the PAC’s original $135-million pricetag for dramatically revamping the Ayers-designed Municipal Auditorium.

In a phone interview ahead of today’s announcement (emceed by PAC Foundation board member Tommy Lee Jones!) that the Endowment itself will write the biggest private-sector check, Bugg was amused when we asked if he ever suspected that County Judge Nelson Wolff and former Mayor Phil Hardberger expected him to underwrite the title marquee all along.

They would mention from time to time how fitting it would be, he said, but “I had no idea until I received the June 30, 2008, letter.” That letter, hand-delivered in the Mayor’s office, asked for $15 million, which the Endowment will contribute over as many years in the form of a challenge grant to the city’s other foundations, corporations, and rockefellers.

The gift means a new name for the facility, which will house a 1,750-seat performance hall and a 230-seat theater: The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Mayor John W. Tobin, Robert L.B. Tobin’s great uncle, presided over the Municipal’s debut, and lifelong opera patron Robert began working as a stagehand at the auditorium when he was 16. But the christening also recognizes the crucial role Robert’s mother, Margaret Batts Tobin, played in San Antonio’s cultural life, much of which unfolded at the Municipal Auditorium.

Bugg believes a state-of-the-art PAC will help bring stability to the struggling San Antonio Opera and to the San Antonio Symphony, which emerged from bankruptcy a few years ago. He compared the project to Nashville’s Schermerhorn Center, which was initiated while that city’s symphony was in bankruptcy. It has since recovered and has a healthy endowment because, Bugg says, the quality of the venue dramatically changed the audience’s experience of and appreciation for the art form. “So it may have seemed counterintuitive,” he said, “but that’s what turned that whole situation around.”

The PAC Foundation must now raise the $15-million match ahead of next summer’s scheduled groundbreaking, which will put the new center on track for a fall 2013 grand opening.

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