Curtis Institute receives $55 million gift from departing board chair

Nina Baroness von Maltzahn.

Nina Baroness von Maltzahn, who steps down at the end of the month as the Curtis Institute of Music's board chair, has made a grand parting gesture:

A $55 million one.

On an adjusted-for-inflation basis, Maltzahn's donation is the largest single gift Curtis has received since Mary Louise Curtis Bok established the school as tuition-free in 1928. It is all the more remarkable for Maltzahn's relatively recent association with the school, which she describes as one of infatuation.

"It is from the heart," Maltzahn said Wednesday of the gift, "and I believe in them and want them to succeed."

Said Curtis president Roberto Díaz: "It is such an incredible vote of confidence to all of us here at the school  the trustees, the faculty, the students  from someone who is so important to us. It's a stamp of approval for what we are doing, and what we hope to do."

The money will go into the Curtis endowment as the music conservatory continues setting the stage for a fund-raising campaign to underwrite programs and ensure the endowment is of a sufficient size to keep the school tuition-free.

The $55 million is on top of previous gifts Maltzahn and her husband made to Curtis, for a grand total of about $70 million  about equal to the amount Curtis received over a span of years from previous board chairman H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest and wife Marguerite.

Among other things, the new money from Maltzahn  to be paid out over five years  will help support Curtis' touring activities, which are in themselves partly a tool for attracting new supporters.

Curtis will recognize the largesse by naming two key initiatives in her honor: the Nina von Maltzahn String Quartet Program; and Curtis on Tour, the Nina von Maltzahn Global Touring Initiative.

Although gifts of $100 million and well above are not uncommon in higher education, Curtis is a small school  174 students were enrolled this year  and eight-figure donations to schools of music are relatively rare.

This one is considered to be among the largest ever made to a U.S. music school.

"It is an extraordinary gift for any organization to receive $55 million, and it's truly extraordinary for a music school," said Michael M. Kaiser, who has consulted with a number of Philadelphia arts groups recently as chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland. "They have one of the great music institutions on earth in the Curtis Institute of Music. And it shows that greatness can attract great resources."

Curtis aims to keep the attraction going. Maltzahn's gift may cap her two-year board chair term with a flourish, but her work with the school goes on. The scion of a wealthy Jewish family that fled Nazi Germany in 1937, then left Paris and landed in New York in 1939, Maltzahn represents welcome philanthropy from outside the city's usual circle. She lives in Berlin, New York, and Uruguay and has recruited other board members and donors, particularly in Europe and South America.

"I just love this place," said the polished, soft-spoken Maltzahn, who describes her arrival to the Curtis family  first to the board of overseers in 2008, and then the board of trustees in 2010  as love at first sight. "The whole setup got very close to me. And I did want to do something for Curtis. Curtis on Tour  I didn't begin it, but I was there from almost the beginning, and I feel a little bit like it's my baby. At my young age,"  75  "I was thinking of my estate, and I had a grandmother whom I adored, and she brought me up and said, `When you can give, give with a warm hand  when you're alive.' "

Such support is critical as the school undertakes a new strategic plan that calls for raising several hundred million dollars by Curtis' centenary in 2024. The last campaign, from 2008 to 2013, raised $158.5 million, according to the school's published report. The exact goal of the next campaign has not been finalized, said Díaz.

The salient question is: "What will it take to keep Curtis tuition-free? Those conversations are still being held," said Díaz. "This is a huge help, a wonderful starting place. But as far as determining a number of what needs to be raised  ...  it's a steep climb to keep Curtis operating like it has and how we want it to."

Maltzahn's gift and involvement at Curtis in general are seen as something of a beacon in a town where many of the same philanthropists are called on repeatedly to serve on boards and to give time and treasure.

"Philadelphia has not necessarily been a magnet for the huge gifts," said Kaiser, adding that what paved the way for the Curtis gift was the school's ability to project an image of high achievement and strong management, and a consistent message.

Donors everywhere "respond to an incredible level of accomplishment," he said. "What's important is that it shows Philadelphia can attract money from philanthropists whose central residence is not Philadelphia. This is a major trend in the arts, and may be one that other Philadelphia institutions need to emulate."

Maltzahn says she is eager to bring other supporters along with the help of Curtis concerts like ones coming up in Spain, Greece, Germany, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. A 2017 tour of the full Curtis orchestra with conductor Osmo Vänskä is to include Austria, Finland, and Germany.

"It fascinates me," she says. "I want to see a map of Europe and be able to say, `There is Curtis,' and, `There is Curtis.' We will have more time in Europe  to follow up with visits."

Visits, perhaps, that will end with additional gifts from far beyond Curtis' home on Rittenhouse Square.