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From Cultural Gridlock to Crown Jewel

How the Opening of Benaroya Hall Transformed the Cultural Scene in Seattle

The Seattle Symphony has gone through a remarkable transition since the creation of Benaroya Hall. The late 1980s and early 1990s found the Orchestra in the same situation as many others across the United States — performing concerts in an oversized hall not designed for symphonic music. Before the $118.1 million Benaroya Hall opened in September 1998, the Orchestra and the City of Seattle found themselves locked in "cultural gridlock." The city, known for its varied performing arts ensembles, lacked venues to support them all. Seattle was one of only six cities in the United States to have a major symphony, opera company and ballet, and the only city where all three organizations shared the same facility. The Seattle Center Opera House was booked solid 360 days each year, virtually eliminating scheduling flexibility.

In 1998, after an ambitious capital campaign that raised $159 million in private funds for construction, endowment, and financing — the largest amount ever raised by an arts organization in the State of Washington — Benaroya Hall opened its doors, bringing with it a 50% increase in subscribers in its first season, sold-out concerts, national attention and the increased revenues for which the Orchestra hoped. The Symphony's decade-plus in this magnificent home reflects profound organizational vision, extraordinary implementation and great success. Beyond the impact on culture, Benaroya Hall has been a major component of Seattle's downtown revitalization, positively impacting tourism and neighborhood businesses.

Since 1990, the Seattle Symphony has enjoyed a major increase in audiences overall. During the 1995–1996 season, Seattle Symphony was a $9.7 million operation. Today its budget is $22.5 million, and the Orchestra presents more than 20 different subscription series — a volume purposefully chosen so that the Seattle Symphony can connect with a variety of audience segments in the Seattle market. Since the move from the Opera House to Benaroya Hall, the Symphony has increased its presentations from approximately 100 each year to nearly 220 performances annually. The ensuing community support for the Seattle Symphony and Benaroya Hall not only greatly increased revenue, but also expanded the roster of internationally acclaimed artists who now perform under the Symphony's auspices at Benaroya Hall – including a Visiting Orchestras series that has been a popular series since its inauguration in the 1998–1999 season.

Including Seattle Symphony events, Benaroya Hall hosts more than 700 public and private events each year.

In July 2000, the Seattle Symphony inaugurated the Watjen Concert Organ, a 4,490-pipe organ built by C. B. Fisk, Inc. The organ greatly increased programming opportunities for both the Seattle Symphony and other ensembles that perform in Benaroya Hall.

It has long been a dream of Seattle Symphony leadership to have a dedicated space in Benaroya Hall to serve as a "learning center." That dream became a reality in April 2001 with the opening of Soundbridge Seattle Symphony Music Discovery Center in Benaroya Hall. Soundbridge links music lovers of all ages with the Seattle Symphony and features hands-on, interactive exhibits, orchestral instruments, and a workshop/performance space. Through exploration and creation, Soundbridge offers everyone the opportunity to build a lifelong relationship with symphonic music. Hundreds of thousands of patrons have visited Soundbridge since its opening.