US Conservatory receives massive $46.4 million gift

US Conservatory receives massive $46.4 million gift


norman lebrecht

April 25, 2018

The William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation has just written a little check to the San Francisco Conservatory.

At $46.4 million, it is claimed to be the largest ever given to a music conservatory for a new facility.

Mr Bowes, who died in 2016, ran a venture capital firm.


press release:

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, APRIL 25, 2018 – The San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) announces the expansion of its campus and the construction of the Ute and William K. Bowes, Jr. Center for Performing Arts (The Bowes Center) in San Francisco’s Civic Center. The $185 million performing arts center and residential tower will be located at 200 Van Ness Avenue and construction will begin in the summer of 2018. The opening of the new building is slated for the fall of 2020 when it will welcome its first class of residents to a facility that will transform students through the study of music at the highest level. The name of the building is in honor and recognition of a financial gift of $46.4 million from the William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation, which is the largest single gift ever made to a conservatory or music school for a new facility. To date, $96 million has been raised toward a fundraising goal of $110 million. The existing SFCM building at 50 Oak Street will remain in active use through the construction of the new building and after it is completed.

The new, 12-story building, designed by Mark Cavagnero Associates, will provide housing for 420 students and accommodate two concert halls (featuring hundreds of performances annually with over 90% of them free and open to the public), a restaurant with a live performance space, multiple classrooms and rehearsal spaces for ensembles, practice rooms, a recording studio and technology hall, a large observation deck and garden, conference facilities, a student center, and several apartments for visiting artists and faculty. In addition, the new building will include 27 apartments to replace the rent-stabilized residential units currently on site.


  • Sharon says:

    I understand the preference to give locally and the importance of the arts and arts education. I also assume that this new building will create more employment than the old building.

    However, right now I and a friend have contributed thousands of dollars since December to help a homeless girl and her baby who for various complicated reasons have fallen through the cracks in our very inadequate social welfare system (yes, she is a US citizen, not that that in my opinion should make a difference). Had we not helped her this girl probably now would be in jail although not guilty of a crime and her baby in foster care and eventually adopted by strangers against the mother’s will.

    Before we contribute so much money to the arts perhaps we should realize that given the entirely frayed social services that we have now in the U.S. there might be more pressing charitable causes.

    • william osborne says:

      The arts can strengthen our sense of compassion. They can increase our empathy for others. The arts can create more humane societies. Dickens and Steinbeck are obvious examples simple to understand. Music works in more abstract ways, but it can and does do the same thing.

      There have been periods in specific societies when the arts failed in this function, like Nazi Germany, but it was exactly the moral values of the rest of the world, values instilled in them in part by the arts, that gave them the strength to resist the barbarism. And they helped Germany find itself after the war — a process still very active to this day. And a process sadly lacking in the USA.

      One of the failings of the Bay Area has been the relative lack of interest the tech industries have shown in the arts. I think this has created a more barren and brutal cultural landscape. This is all by way of saying that the arts can open our hearts and create a society with less of the ills you mention. See this, for a more empirical discussion of these ideas:

    • Mark J Henriksen says:

      I disagree with you and have changed my giving accordingly. Giving money to social and medical causes is spitting in the ocean because the government already gives billions. On the other hand, donating money to an orchestra, for example, is a need relatively few can see. You are entitled to prioritize your giving however you wish but realize it is your priority and is no more justified than that of others.

      My response to this donation is thank God for rich people who love classical music.

  • Canuck Musician says:

    Meanwhile students have to pay well over $60,000US for the privilege of using these facilities, which is breaking the bounds of decency.

    • william osborne says:

      An American phenomenon. There is no such thing as student debt in Europe. University education is free, or has only small tuition fees.

  • La Verita says:

    Was there ever a time in history when this wasn’t the case? And may I add that, while the American president ignores the fact that 2/3rds of Puerto Rico is still without electricity, he proposes to spend millions of dollars to create an annual July 4th military parade to rival the spectacle he recently witnessed in France! Every now and then, rich people splurge their wealth on the arts — but what about the American government wasting your tax dollars on such a narcissistic spectacle, while the US still has destitute people eating out of garbage cans?

    • Sharon says:

      I agree that that charitable giving should not replace the government’s responsibility but the reality is that in the United States that is what has to happen. With few exceptions human beings, and certainly young children, have to eat every day.
      With regard military parades from an objective point of view just the fact that countries have/need a military is a tremendous waste. I lived in 1979 in Costa Rica. They had no military and although they were a poor country they had universal health care (admittedly not great but they were trying) and a social security system

  • Sue says:

    The rich are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The backstory of this bequest – and others like it – have me wondering if the man had no children, or he had family from whom he was estranged or he had so much money all these things could be accomplished adequately.

    • Bill says:

      Bowes was a billionaire, on the Forbes 400 list. He had enough money to donate some to the school and take care of his family.

      • Bill says:

        He didn’t have any children, and his wife is probably adequately set for life. He’s been giving away large sums for decades.

        “The William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation was formed in 1991 and has since supported projects having a significant impact in a variety of specialized fields. These include: UCSF, The Exploratorium, United Religions Initiative, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, SFJAZZ, Asian Art Museum, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Environmental Defense Fund, Stanford Bio-X, Harvard Stem Cell Research, California Academy of Sciences, KIPP schools, Teach for America, International Rescue Committee and many more.”

  • Aslanis says:

    Ridiculous! When are donors going to understand there are NO JOBS out there for the throngs of graduates from conservatories. That money could have provided employment time immemorial as grants to companies whose mission it was to employ conservatory graduates for a headstart into the world of classical music And, yes, their names could be in lights, if that’s what they want. Anything is possible.

    • bob says:


      To add:

      Spending money on a new building, so that the effect is to make it (conservatory) a more effective trap so that young musicians enter into a lifetime of debt.

      Seriously! If donors actually want to give to charity and not primarily out of vanity, they’d fund scholarships. It’s so beyond disgusting that the typical music school charges like $50,000 a year.

      What are the future generations of US musicians going to do if they are $100,000 in debt?

      Practice even more?

      Ahh well… we live in a time where moral/societal responsibility is indeed “outdated”.

      (rant over)

      • SVM says:

        Re “NO JOBS”, I have two questions:

        1. If a person reads a music degree but goes on to work in a different profession, are you arguing that his/her tertiary musical education was not worthwhile at all?

        2. If the quantity of music students is to be subject to quotas (cf. medicine, a subject which, in the UK, is subject to national quotas, despite the fact that the NHS has serious staff shortages in many specialties), who should act as gatekeepers? Speaking as a music academic myself, I would feel *very* uncomfortable with the idea of acting as the principal gatekeeper to the music profession (as opposed to a specific course at a specific institution), obliged to form a judgement on the basis of just one audition and application… Even if it were desirable to impose quotas, would it not be better to take too many people, and give them a chance to prove themselves over several years rather than in one audition and application?

        Re “Spending money on a new building”:

        I agree that the balance is swung too far in favour of capital building projects, and that many/most institutions should adjust their priorities towards paying staff properly and providing more scholarships for students. Having said that, a new building can be a good thing, too, provided that its facilities are utilised for purposes consistent with the institution’s work and are made available for staff, students, and (to some extent) alumni. Too often, shiny new facilities tend to have very limited availability, owing to too many external hires (many of much have little or nothing to do with classical music) and high-profile events of limited benefit to members of the institution itself.

        For this reason, I am against Rattle’s proposals for yet another new concert hall in the City of London: having already spent a lot of money on Milton Court, an excellent hall (as well as a theatre) opened in 2013, it is time for the London music-making organisations to focus fundraising efforts on people (orchestral players, music lecturers, scholarships for students, &c.) instead.

    • Sharon says:

      I feel better knowing that Bowes did support the International Rescue Committee.

      And admittedly the conservatory itself will provide a lot of employment itself and will also help spur the San Francisco tourist industry if eventually this institute helps turn San Francisco in a place that people travel to for music.

  • Has-been says:

    William Osborn.
    The Nazis can be criticised and condemned but not for their lack of support for the arts. Their support may have been perverse but they recognised the value of cultural propaganda and the need to keep the population of Germany and the occupied countries distracted by the illusion of normalcy. Just look at their Mozart Festival of 1941. As I have said it was perverse and cynical but they did support the arts.

  • Crommer says:

    What is that picture? Definitely not the SF Conservatory.

    I am loving these comments, by the way. Your readers really know what to focus on.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      The picture now posted is the architect’s rendering of the new SFCM Bowes Center at 200 Van Ness.

      • Crommer says:

        It’s been changed since the post was first put up. The first picture looked like a shot of a random university campus. I do wish changes like that would be acknowledged, but whatever.

  • collin says:

    This is crazy. And tone deaf (pun intended!)

    The Bay Area is so awashed with money, it doesn’t know what to do with it. Within blocks of where the new conservatory building is going up, are the blighted Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods, filled with homeless people and opioid addicts who could use that $46 million. Rents continue to skyrocket (40 year old middle class people compete to rent a ROOM for $2,000+ per month in a shared apartment with roommates, utilities not included, thank you very much, and no one with an income less than 4x the rent need apply): there are no more families living in San Francisco, because no one can afford an apartment.

    Yes, what SF needs is more music students. To play for the homeless. And to join the ranks of the homeless.

  • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Speaking of employment opportunities. The new SFCM TAC program (since 2015) boasts close to 100% placement for its graduates. SFCM is totally rethinking the conservatory concept under the inspired leadership of President David Stull who began his tenure in 2013.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      PS: TAC = Technology and Applied Composition.

      • william osborne says:

        The TAC students have high employment stats, but at the same time, one might consider the nature of the work. What is the artistic niveau of video game sound environments? Is work as a sound engineer for the entertainment industries comparable to work as a contemporary classcial composer? How creative is work creating audio effects for toys? Is the creation of software for car radios artistic work?

        Is this form of education overly influenced by the market fundamentalism (disguised under the endlessly repeated rubric of “entrepreneurship”) becoming a totalizing and narrowing force in American society? Are our aesthetic and social sensibilities debased in the process? Are we too ready to buy into these ideologies and educational concepts without adquately considering their full implications?