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ICA’s exiting chairman sharing the stage with Yo-Yo Ma

Paul Buttenwieser, a Belmont psychiatrist, has played a central role for almost a dozen nonprofit organizations.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Paul Buttenwieser, a Belmont psychiatrist, has played a central role for almost a dozen nonprofit organizations.

The gig has been sold out for months, with tickets going for $1,500 a pop. The audience, packed with some of the region’s most prominent arts leaders, is eager for the main event, a Beethoven sonata performed by world-
renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Paul Buttenwieser.

Paul Buttenwieser?

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Most board members get testimonial speeches and plaques when they step down. On Friday, Buttenwieser marks the end of a decade as board chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Art by playing piano to accompany Yo-Yo Ma. The performance is the centerpiece of the ICA’s annual gala, an event expected to raise more than $1 million for the organization.

Buttenwieser’s unorthodox exit has Boston’s cultural community buzzing and eager to talk about the man who might be the city’s least publicly known but most influential philanthropist in the arts.

“How many board members can play with Yo-Yo Ma?” asks Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s managing director.

Going under the spotlight is certainly a departure for Buttenwieser, 78, a Belmont psychiatrist whose grandfather, Arthur Lehman, was one of the principals of the legendary banking firm of the same name. Buttenwieser has played a central role for almost a dozen nonprofit organizations during Boston’s unprecedented cultural building boom.

He served as chairman of the ICA’s board as it built its waterfront home, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra search committee that landed new music director Andris Nelsons, and a trustee at the Museum of Fine Arts when it built its new $345 million wing.

Buttenwieser has also made considerable donations to art institutions. He declines to give exact totals – “I think it’s crass and in poor taste,” he said – but concedes, after being provided with figures listed in public records, that he has given more than $15 million to arts organizations over the years.

Even when he declines to join a board, Buttenwieser’s influence is felt. He has supported dance programs at Boston Ballet. He gave money to Berklee College of Music to start a contemporary symphony orchestra and, as a favor to Roger Brown, then Berklee’s new president, invited the important figures in the classical music community to events at the school for the first time.

“I think of Paul as the Yoda of arts and culture in Boston, especially mentoring younger leaders,” says Brown. “When he got involved in Berklee, it was a huge coup for us, because it signaled to so many people, we must be doing something right.”

Buttenwieser also offered unwavering support for the American Repertory Theater’s Diane Paulus. Today, she is the Tony Award-winning director who has reshaped the organization. But her tenure as artistic director began in 2009 with some longtime ART supporters criticizing changes she was making. Buttenwieser, Paulus recalls, told her right away to call whenever she needed anything, “even if it’s two in the morning.” “In my first years at the ART, I always knew I would get an e-mail from Paul within an hour of an opening night,” Paulus says. “And he would write to me about what he had seen.”

Buttenwieser’s role at the BSO has been central in the orchestra’s most pressing task in recent years: Finding a suitable replacement for oft-
injured maestro James Levine. Of the five trustees on that committee, four were either the board chairmen or, in the case of Joyce Linde, the widow of a board chairman. Buttenwieser was the lone regular ranking member on the influential committee.

“When you think investment committee, you think of a few people,” said Volpe. “When you think of budget committee, you think of a few people. When you think about fundamental artistic matters, he is one of the most sophisticated board members of any institute in Boston.”

The ICA gala performance might come off as a bucket list request, but it’s not as outlandish as it might appear. Growing up in New York’s high society, Buttenwieser was a serious pianist, taking regular lessons with Constance Keene, who would become head of the piano department at the Manhattan School of Music.

As a boy, he met pianist Arthur Rubenstein, among others, backstage at Carnegie Hall. His grandmother, he notes, once loaned her limousine to Vladimir Horowitz so he could get to a recital. A young Buttenwieser got to tag along for the ride. But as time passed, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of pursuing piano as a career. The pressure, most of it self-imposed, he says, became too much. In the 1980s, a novel by Buttenwieser, one of two he has had published, included this passage:

Paul Buttenwieser studied piano as a child of high society in New York, but decided not to pursue it as a career.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Paul Buttenwieser studied piano as a child of high society in New York, but decided not to pursue it as a career.

“You know how it is with this family. If you’re a lawyer, you make the Supreme Court. If you’re a tennis player, you win the Davis Cup. If you’re a pianist, you play in Carnegie Hall. . . . There’s no room for mediocrity.”

Buttenwieser said he also was influenced by the early death of his older sister, Carol. She had suffered with an eating disorder, he says, and later died of heart failure.

Buttenwieser earned a bachelor’s degree in history and literature at Harvard, trained in psychoanalysis at Harvard Medical School, and started his own practice in 1971. He met his wife, Katie, in graduate school. She’s a social worker at Children’s Hospital.

His volunteer work grew over the years, as he found it hard to say no to the BSO, MFA, and Harvard. He first joined the ICA’s board in 1992. He and his wife started the Family-to-
Family Project in 1988, a nonprofit that helps families struggling financially.

“I think it just gives me more a sense that we’re all one big huge community and within that an arts community,” says Buttenwieser. “Board service expands your life hugely. I’m not an art collector, so being on these art boards allows me to get more deeply immersed in the world of art.”

The ICA has been particularly satisfying. ICA director Jill Medvedow still talks about how when she took over in 1998, one of the first people she met was Buttenwieser. Over breakfast in Harvard Square, he told her he was sorry, but he lacked the time. He planned to resign from the board.

She pleaded for him to give her one more year. She has received 16 and counting.

Medvedow explained the ICA’s logic in organizing the duet. “He didn’t need another plaque, another sit-down dinner,” she said. “We decided that our gift is that for the first time Paul would enter the ICA as an artist, as opposed to as a trustee.”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.
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