They put equal effort into snagging this year's Virtuoso, Bill Cosby, as well as past performers like violinist Itzhak Perlman and soprano Kathleen Battle.
"We were bringing world-class performers to a less-than-world-class venue and trying to show everyone that this university can support a higher level of entertainment than our facilities allow," Union Director Don Luse said.
The Virtuoso benefits began in 1996 with two goals: creating an endowment to provide a perpetual source of income for the Union's Performing Arts Series and raising awareness of the need to renovate Memorial Hall.
Proceeds usually go to the endowment, but this year's profits will go toward Memorial's renovation, which begins this spring.
While Memorial Hall is closed, Virtuoso Benefit organizers are considering venues from the Smith Center to a temporary tent. The Performing Arts Series, which also uses Memorial, will be held in Hill Hall and University United Methodist Church.
In the future, profits from the benefit will return to the series -- which must be subsidized because ticket sales alone don't support the arts, said Priscilla Bratcher, director of principal gifts. "You never break even," she said.
The Union's 2000-01 Performing Arts Series lost only $700, the closest it's ever come. "And that's worth dancing in the street," Luse said, considering that the series incurred approximately $341,000 in expenses.
The Performing Arts endowment is intended to provide money to cover that gap every year -- a need that will exist indefinitely, Bratcher said. The Union currently subsidizes the series out of its own budget.
"The endowment is really important because you have to have money to bring people to your brand-new, state-of-the-art performing arts facility," said Jennifer Smith, Union marketing director.
But even the Virtuoso benefits sometimes don't break even -- performers of that caliber demand fees from $60,000 to $100,000.
"It's hard to make lots of money on any performance, and it's easy to lose lots of money on any performance," Luse said.
He estimated profits from last year's Yo-Yo Ma performance at $10,000, and proceeds from the Cosby performance are expected to exceed that, he said, although Cosby was the most costly performer so far.
"Cosby was definitely a different choice, but it was a huge hit," Smith said. Cosby was the first Virtuoso artist to put on two performances, allowing double the ticket sales.
Even so, it will take time before the endowment fund contains enough money to significantly defray the cost of funding the Performing Arts Series, Luse said.
But the Virtuoso Benefit isn't intended solely to make money, he added. "We'd like it to, but we also love to bring the best performers there are and put them in front of our students," he said.
Attendance at Virtuoso performances averages 40 percent students, Luse said. Student ticket prices are kept low through sales of $100-and-up donor tickets.
Luse said the Union would like to continue in the Cosby tradition, expanding the Virtuoso concerts beyond classical artists. But the Three Tenors are on top of the Union's wish list after Memorial Hall reopens.
And Luse hopes students will take chances on acts they aren't familiar with.
"College is a great time for students to discover life's passion," he said. "There are great things people ought to be experiencing besides what they can get out of a textbook."
The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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