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Lyric letter suggests the Modell family name will be removed from the Baltimore theater if family doesn’t pay to keep it there | COMMENTARY

Then-owner Art Modell acknowledges the crowd after his name is added to the Ravens Ring of Honor Jan. 3, 2004. His wife, Patricia Modell, is at his side.
Then-owner Art Modell acknowledges the crowd after his name is added to the Ravens Ring of Honor Jan. 3, 2004. His wife, Patricia Modell, is at his side.

If you walk by a building and see a person’s name on it, what do you think? I think two things: Either that person gave a major donation to the institution housed within the building or the institution named the building to honor a person who had devoted great effort to its mission.

I’m not referring to corporate names. There’s a significant distinction between a family name — Pearlstone, as in the Pearlstone Theater at Center Stage — and, say, M&T Bank Stadium.

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A couple of decades ago, the term “naming rights” entered the public sphere; we came to understand that corporations would pay millions of dollars to have their unmelodious names attached to coliseums, arenas and bowl games. It’s just a form of advertising.

On the other hand, when I see a surname on a building, I assume it recognizes a benefactor or honors a longtime supporter. The Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore was originally called the Children’s Rehabilitation Institution. It was renamed in 1968 to honor the late President John F. Kennedy. The second name was added in 1992 to honor Zanvyl Krieger, the Baltimore philanthropist who gave generously to the center.

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I assume that buildings or institutions named for generous men and women keep those names forever.

Which is why I was surprised to hear of a dispute over the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric, more generally known as the Modell Lyric. It’s the 128-year-old theater on Mount Royal Avenue that Baltimoreans for decades called the Lyric Opera House. The name was changed to honor the Modells — Patricia, a former TV and film actress who died in 2011, and her husband, Art, the former owner of the Baltimore Ravens, who died a year later.

After Art Modell moved his Cleveland Browns here to become the Ravens in the 1990s, he and his wife donated millions to institutions, including Kennedy Krieger, Johns Hopkins Hospital, SEED School, the House of Ruth, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric.

In 2010, the Modells pledged $3.5 million (payable in installments over 10 years) to a $12.5 million capital campaign the Lyric needed to expand and modernize to accommodate the bands and major acts it subsequently brought to the city.

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The Modells’ donation was considered one of the largest ever made to a Baltimore cultural institution. Their names went on the building.

“We’re very grateful to the Modells,” Edward Brody, president of the Lyric Foundation, told The Sun at the time. “Art and Pat have a love of the arts. … The board was 100% in favor of [the renaming] to recognize their gift, which is quite magnanimous.”

But apparently the Modells’ names will not stick unless surviving Modells continue to make donations.

Michel Modell, the couples’ daughter-in-law and widow of David Modell, says that, after her husband, the former Ravens president, died in 2017, a representative of the Lyric Foundation asked for $300,000 annual donations to keep the name. John Modell, the couple’s son, offered in support a copy of a February 2020 letter from the Lyric’s executive director that referred to “naming rights” and linked the Modells’ continued support for the foundation with keeping the name on the building.

That’s not what Pat and Art were told when they stepped forward to help the Lyric, their survivors say. And because they see this as a breach of the original agreement, they have withheld the final installment on the $3.5 million pledge.

“We are shocked and disappointed by this development,” John Modell and Michel Modell said in a statement that reflected what they told me in separate interviews last week. “The actions of the Lyric executives and board have deeply hurt our family and dishonor the memory and generosity of our parents.”

The Modells understood the family name would remain forever. “We didn’t think we were renting space on the building,” Michel Modell says.

John Modell concedes that a 2010 letter acknowledging the couple’s pledge does not clearly make Modell part of the theater’s name in perpetuity. But neither does it appear to put a time limit on the arrangement, except to state the duration of payments. An attorney I consulted said one could interpret the duration of the agreement, including the inclusion of Modell in the Lyric’s name, at 10 years. But I don’t think it’s clear, and it seems to me this matter could be settled with mediation.

In the meantime, the Lyric’s executive director tells me the foundation that supports the nonprofit venue very much wants to continue its relationship with the Modell family. Jonathan Schwartz denied that the Lyric already has decided to drop the Modell name and sell naming rights to a new donor.

“We have not done anything of the sort,” Schwartz said in an email following a conversation we had last week. “Our first priority is to continue to work with the family to honor Art and Pat Modell. The [foundation] board is committed to doing that even though the pledge has not been completed by their heirs.”

Michel and John Modell say they’d rather distribute the remaining installment (about $260,000) to other Baltimore charities — there are plenty that could use it in the midst of the pandemic — and I see their point. Call me old school, but, once a nonprofit or public institution names a building for philanthropists, it ought to stick and not be sold off to the next bidder.

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