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Modell family wants name removed from Baltimore’s Lyric, severing family’s relationship with theater

The Modell family wants their family’s name off the city’s Lyric.

The moment marks what may be a bitter end to the relationship between the performing arts center on Mount Royal Avenue and the family that brought the team formerly known as the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore.

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At stake is at least $300,000, the final portion of a 10-year, $3.5 million gift from the Modell family, which Lyric leadership says the 127-year-old institution needs to get through the coronavirus pandemic. The dispute stems from a disagreement that recently surfaced between Lyric officials and the Modell family about whether that 10-year gift meant the building would be renamed forever — or just for a decade.

In a letter to the board last week, Michel Modell gave the Lyric Foundation 30 days to remove the family’s name from the building or face fines of up to $1,000 a day.

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“Further, the family does not want its name associated with the Lyric going forward,” she wrote.

The letter came on the heels of what she called a “torturous” and expensive negotiation over the naming rights of the building.

Pat Modell and Art Modell sit on stage in 2010 during a ceremony renaming the Lyric to the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric.
Pat Modell and Art Modell sit on stage in 2010 during a ceremony renaming the Lyric to the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric. (Barbara Taylor)

Modell, an Owings Mills resident and daughter-in-law of the late Patricia “Pat” and Arthur “Art” Modell, faulted the Lyric’s leadership for the outcome: “They literally drove their biggest philanthropic family to remove the name themselves.”

The letter was news to Lyric leadership reached by phone Monday.

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“I cannot tell you what our next steps will be. The Baltimore Sun was informed about this agreement before the executive director of the foundation was,” said Jonathan Schwartz, the Lyric’s director.

He said the Lyric needed more proof that Modell speaks for the whole family and not just herself.

”We don’t know that she can unilaterally enter into this agreement,” he said.

But John Modell, the California-based son of the philanthropic couple and a former vice president of the Ravens, confirmed Tuesday that “Michel absolutely speaks for the family.” He added: “This is the family decision.”

Schwartz said removing the Modell name from the facility within 30 days would be impossible. The name is featured on the building, web domain and branding material.

“It would be a huge expense at a time when we have no money, and it would be an impossibility to meet this time frame,” he said.

The Lyric Opera House had been renamed the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric, or Modell Lyric, following a pledge of $3.5 million in 2010. The gift, part of a $12.5 million capital campaign to expand and modernize the theater, was to be paid in installments over 10 years.

John Modell said his parents had been delighted to have their name on the Lyric, believing that it would be up forever. His mother, a former TV and film actress, was particularly excited, telling him: “My grandkids are going to see our names up there.”

The couple, who donated widely to city institutions, died before the gift was paid in full: Pat Modell died in 2011, while her husband, Art, the former owner of the Baltimore Ravens, died the following year. Their children continued to make the payments after their deaths.

Michel Modell said it had been her in-laws’ understanding that their name would remain in perpetuity. It wasn’t until her husband, former Ravens president David Modell, died in 2017 and she took charge of the family’s charitable gifts that she realized no such agreement existed.

In a letter to The Sun, Ed Brody, a former chair of the Lyric and friend of Art Modell’s, wrote: “Never was it mentioned between Pat, Art and me that the naming rights would be in perpetuity.”

Michel Modell said Lyric leadership requested $300,000 a year in donations to keep the name on the building. That would have made for “one of the most expensive naming right agreements in town,” Modell said. She withheld the final $300,000 installment of the $3.5 million pledge in protest, spending a substantial portion on lawyers’ fees, she said. The process was “unbelievably torturous for us,” Modell said.

John Modell said he felt the Lyric’s leadership had disrespected his parents’ legacy, years after their death.

“They were really great people,” he said. “They supported so many institutions there. It’s kind of crummy that their memory’s being treated that way.”

Schwartz said that Modell’s refusal to pay the final $300,000 installment, which was due last year, would be a devastating blow at a precarious time for the institution. With the pandemic, he said, “we are facing a challenge like we have never faced before.”

The theater shut down last March and has not hosted a ticketed show since.

Exterior of the Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric on Tuesday
Exterior of the Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric on Tuesday (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

“Our revenue has basically dried up, and so the support of our donors and the support of the state of Maryland are critical for us to survive,” he said.

Michel Modell said she plans to take what remains of the money — $125,000 after lawyers’ fees — and divide it among five charities in the Baltimore area.

“It’ll get into the community. Just not to the Lyric,” John Modell said.

Michell Modell got choked up discussing the matter.

“I love my late in-laws, and it breaks my heart,” she said. “This could go on for years, and I know Art and Pat would not want us to be beaten with our own last name.”

Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks contributed to this article.

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