Wm. Davidson Foundation donates $15 million to DSO

$5 million of the gift comes in the form of a challenge grant; 3 foundations have pledged $3.5 million toward the goal

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer


Ex-DSO music director Neeme Jarvi, left, and the late William Davidson.

Monday was a very good day for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

DSO officials announced a $15 million gift from the William Davidson Foundation. Of that, $5 million comes in the form of a challenge grant, which, if matched, will add to the DSO’s small-but-growing endowment. The balance will support a variety of DSO programs.

Three other foundations already jumped in to make that happen. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, and the Dresner Foundation pledged a total of $3.5 million — over half what’s needed — for an total of $18.5 million. 

“I am ecstatic,” said DSO President and CEO Anne Parsons. “It’s an amazing partnership we have with all these foundations. We are humbled and inspired.”

In terms of magnitude, the Davidson gift is tied with an earlier one from the Fisher family for the single largest donation in DSO history.

In recognition of the Davidson family’s generosity — the foundation has sponsored the DSO’s popular neighborhood concert series over the past seven years — the atrium at the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center will be named the William Davidson Atrium.

The family has a relationship with the DSO that goes back three generations, said Ralph J. Gerson, Davidson Foundation director and executive committee member

“My grandparents believed that music was an important part of life, and regularly took my uncle (William Davidson) and my mother to the DSO Young People’s Concerts,” Gerson said. “So my uncle had a long appreciation for the DSO and what it brings the community.”

Davidson, president and CEO of Guardian Industries and one-time owner of the Detroit Pistons, also struck up a friendship with Neeme Järvi, DSO music director till 2005, and that relationship further solidified his commitment to the orchestra.

“Bill got a terrific charge out of Neeme,” who became music director emeritus in 2005, “and got interested in becoming more supportive of the symphony,” Gerson said.

Years ago that friendship led to a Guardian Industries touring fund to help with the DSO’s national and international performances, which Järvi felt were essential to a great orchestra.

More recently, once the DSO’s six-month strike ended in 2011, Parsons said, the Davidsons “were right there supporting us and believing in our ideas.”

“Bill Davidson thought we should take the orchestra out to the communities,” an idea Parsons recalled being hatched at the Davidson family home in discussions with DSO music director Leonard Slatkin.

Davidson died in 2009.

The $3.5 million in matching funds breaks down as follows: The New York-based Mellon Foundation pledged $2 million, while the Erb Foundation promised $1 million and the Dresner Foundation $500,000, both of which are based in Oakland County.

The orchestra’s endowment currently stands at $46.3 million, up from $27.4 million in 2012. If the Davidson’s $5 million is fully matched, the endowment will jump to $56.3 million.


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