In 1920, George Eastman was a busy man. After creating one of the greatest technology companies, he directed his talent and energy to making Rochester into a world class city. This was the period when he relocated the University of Rochester to the River Campus, established the medical school and founded the Eastman School of Music.
Living in Rochester, it is hard to avoid the Eastman name; however, many of us do not know the history of his remarkable foresight and passion for our city. He understood the connection between the quality of his workforce and the nature of the community they inhabited. This is a concept that remains relevant.
I live in the Grove Place neighborhood, which echoes with Eastman’s presence as a young man. He lives on most vividly though, through one of his greatest gifts, the Eastman School of Music. Every day, I enjoy the benefits of living in the midst of what I consider to be one of the coolest college towns, in the heart of downtown.
What was George thinking nearly a hundred years ago, before the popularization of cars, phones and air travel? Why did an art form virtually monopolized by Europeans resonate so much with him that he spent more than $65 million in current dollars to start a music conservatory in the center of the city? Why did he insist upon a community school to provide musical education to children? Did he know about the connection between technology talent and the arts long before it became widely recognized?
Eastman was designing a community that would attract and retain world class talent to run his company, Eastman Kodak. He understood the connection between quality of life – health care, education and the arts – and his workforce. Eastman wrote big checks, but he also appealed to—and even cajoled—wealthy Rochesterians, who profited from the success of Kodak and other local companies, to invest in their community.
We are beneficiaries of his philanthropy. University of Rochester Medical Center is one of New York’s largest employers, a magnet for talent and a leading contributor to community health. Its financial contribution is immense. Less appreciated is the impact of the Eastman School.
One of the world’s leading music conservatories, it attracts students, faculty and visitors from around the world. Every renowned musician knows of the Eastman School. Its contribution to the local economy exceeds $50 million. The proliferation of innovative programs, public programming and collaborations with other schools at UR means music can be another pillar of our future economic prosperity, alongside software and photonics. Think Austin and Nashville, both thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems where music is their heartbeat.
We would all benefit from contemplating our past and the role George Eastman played. We have an obligation to capitalize on his great gifts, and commit to give back, just like he did.