(Bloomberg) -- Sandy Weill still has the checkbook he used in 1967 to make the first donations of the Weill Family Foundation. One was for $10, to his temple. The biggest was for $100.
Since then, he and his wife Joan have given away more than $1 billion, often in much larger amounts: $250 million to the medical school at Cornell University in 2007 and $185 million to start a neuroscience institute at University of California San Francisco in 2016. And they’re not done yet, said Weill, 86, with gifts coming in areas new to them, like artificial intelligence and big data.
Still, it took Weill 30 years to reach $100 million in giving at Carnegie Hall. It became official Tuesday night when the hall announced a $14.6 million gift from the Weills, partly to endow music education and teacher-training programs in New York City public schools.
Not that Weill was counting.
“Robert Smith was counting,” Weill said, referring to the private equity billionaire who is Carnegie Hall’s chairman, a role he held from 1991 to 2015. “I had no idea what we had done or not done, and then he told me, ‘Do you know if you give $4.6 million more, you will have surpassed $100 million? I said, ‘You’re some salesman.’”
Actually, Weill does recollect some of the increments. After joining Carnegie Hall’s board in 1983, when he was president of American Express, he gave $2 million toward the building’s restoration. For his 70th birthday -- soon after he’d left the top job at Citigroup -- Carnegie Hall ran a campaign to build an endowment for music education in his honor. The Weills agreed to match gifts, with $60 million raised, though Carnegie Hall only credited him for $30 million, Weill said.
While Carnegie Hall’s acoustics are a favorite of artists, orchestras and audiences, expanding education programs is the most important mark Weill says he’s made on the institution, which was built by Andrew Carnegie with an initial $2.1 million investment in the 1890s.
“What our country has done is we’ve taken music education out of the school system, yet it’s probably the most cost effective way of really helping people in their development,” Weill said. “Young people that have an affinity with a musical instrument, their brains usually grow larger, and they’re better in math and science.”
The next era at Carnegie Hall will belong to Smith, Weill said. “I’m like an old man at Carnegie Hall. I’ve had my time to help.”
The Weills’s gifts created an infrastructure for music education that makes expansion possible, Smith said in an interview. “This is about scale and sustainability.”
While reaching $100 million may be an invitation to move on, Carnegie Hall will always be the place where Weill entered the big time of elite giving. “When I came in 1983, I didn’t know anything about fundraising, not much about philanthropy, but I had a big mouth,” he said.
Little did he know philanthropy would become his second career. “Everybody thought I was going to die at my desk and never retire. I didn’t know what it was going to be like to be out of that power position. But I’ve had another life besides just running a big financial institution.”
At a reception Tuesday evening in the Weill Terrace Room, Joan Weill got the last word about her husband’s devotion to Carnegie Hall, after guests had taken in a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra, sipped egg creams and perused photos of the couple, many at galas that she had selected for display.
“The music, the people, the privilege of seeing these children being educated,” she said. “We have gotten so, so much out of it.”
(Updates with Joan Weill’s comment in last paragraph.)
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