Business Titan Robert F. Smith Named Carnegie Hall’s 1st African-American Chairman

Robert F. Smith, 53, elected chairman of the Carnegie Hall Board of Directors on Thursday. (Credit: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times)

article by Michael Cooper and David Gelles via

Robert F. Smith, the private equity titan who was named the richest African-American man by Forbes last year after making a fortune in software, also has a quirky musical side.

He owns one of Elton John’s old pianos. He hired John Legend and Seal — and a youth orchestra — to perform at his wedding last summer on the Amalfi Coast. His youngest sons, Hendrix and Legend, are named after Jimi Hendrix and Mr. Legend. And he bought and refurbished a retreat in the Rocky Mountains that was beloved by jazz musicians, including Duke Ellington.

On Thursday, Mr. Smith’s intersecting worlds of money, philanthropy and music came together when he was named the chairman of Carnegie Hall, the nation’s most prestigious concert stage. He became the first African-American to hold the post at a time when diversity at leading cultural organizations lags — a recent survey of New York’s cultural institutions found that nearly 78 percent of their board members were white.

“Carnegie Hall is perfectly placed to champion not only artistic excellence, but also access and exposure to the best music in the world,” Mr. Smith said in a statement.

The election of Mr. Smith, 53, who played an old upright piano while growing up in Denver and was told that with enough practice he might make it to Carnegie one day, brings to an end a low moment at the hall. The billionaire Ronald O. Perelman served as its chairman for less than a year before stepping down last fall after he alienated the board by clashing with the hall’s executive and artistic director, Clive Gillinson.

After shunning the spotlight for years, Mr. Smith, who is based in Austin, Tex., where the private equity firm he founded, Vista Equity Partners, has its headquarters, has recently taken a more public role — starting a foundation, the Fund II Foundation; giving commencement addresses; and donating money. His alma mater, Cornell University, renamed its School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering for him earlier this year after he announced a $50 million gift.

Unlike Carnegie’s most recent chairmen, Mr. Perelman and Sanford I. Weill, the former Citigroup chairman, Mr. Smith does not come from the world of New York finance, and he has not been a major fixture on the city’s social scene — he is more known for flying in to attend events in the city and then flying out. But his work outside the city with investors and tech firms could provide entree to new potential donors in the coming years.

Mr. Smith said his newfound willingness to exert his influence came from a sense of obligation to help those less fortunate.

“When I look at the folks that inspired me growing up, people like Frederick Douglass, they had to stand up and take positions in public in order to make a difference,” he said in an interview. “Part of the responsibility I have, because of the opportunities I’ve been granted, is to take leadership positions and help expand access for others.”

His path to Carnegie began at Petrossian, the restaurant a block north of the hall, where he had lunch a few years ago with Mr. Gillinson. A mutual friend introduced them, since Mr. Smith was interested in music education, a major focus for Carnegie. Mr. Smith joined the board in 2013. Since then he has donated money to expand Carnegie’s Link Up program, which develops music curriculums for more than 90 orchestras around the country, and become a founding patron of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, created by Carnegie’s Weill Music Institute. He also had an idea for a new program.

“His suggestion was that we should also be reaching out to kids in the areas where we’re supporting the orchestras, offering lessons to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to have lessons, and instruments if they need them as well,” Mr. Gillinson said in an interview. “We added that dimension.”

Last month, Mr. Smith attended an all-star gala concert commemorating Carnegie’s 125th anniversary and got a round of applause at the dinner afterward at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel when Mercedes T. Bass, who served as acting chairwoman after Mr. Perelman’s departure, acknowledged him from the stage. “One person I’d particularly like to point out is our board member, Robert Smith, who gave us a million-dollar check,” she said.

Joshua Nash, the chairman of the board’s succession committee, said in a statement that his group unanimously recommended Mr. Smith.

Until recently, Mr. Smith was little known outside the sleepy world of enterprise software. But in the years since the financial crisis, his firm, Vista, has outperformed titans of the industry such as K.K.R. and T.P.G.

Vista, which Mr. Smith founded in 2000 after leaving Goldman Sachs in 1999, buys and sells little-known software companies such as Solera, Tibco and Misys. Under Mr. Smith’s management, Vista established a remarkable track record by never losing money on a leveraged buyout, and regularly returning investors 30 percent or more on an annualized basis. Last year, Forbes pegged his personal fortune at $2.5 billion. His wedding to Hope Dworaczyk, a former Playboy model, last year at a star-filled ceremony on the Amalfi Coast made headlines in gossip columns.

Growing up in Denver, Mr. Smith was exposed to music from an early age. His father attended the University of Denver on a band scholarship, playing percussion and piano, and Mr. Smith learned to play the piano from both his father and grandmother. By age 7, he was practicing conducting while listing to the radio, and soon became a fan of the pianist André Watts.

His family vacationed at Lincoln Hills, a retreat in the Rockies that was popular with jazz musicians, including Count Basie. Mr. Smith later bought it, and now uses it to host underprivileged schoolchildren and musicians including Maceo Parker and Angie Stone. He counts Prince and Michael Jackson among his favorite pop artists, but also has a passion for classical music, especially Brahms and Debussy.

His Fund II Foundation donates money to a variety of causes, including preserving African-American history and culture, human rights, the environment, sustaining American values and music education. Mr. Smith is also the chairman of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, serves on the board of overseers of Columbia Business School, is a member of the Cornell Engineering College Council, and is a trustee of the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco.

He has supported musical groups including the Sphinx Organization, which promotes diversity in classical music; helped bring the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition to the United States; and supports Ensemble ACJW, a collaboration between Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, the Weill Music Institute and the New York City Education Department.

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