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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra packs up and shrinks down for its regular Intimate Neighborhood Concert series.

An Arkansas native left $1.8 million to the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, the largest individual donation in the group's history, to foster music education and endow the principal cello chair.

The gift was given by the estate of Linda Garner Riggs, according to a Tuesday news release. She died at age 70 on Nov. 15, 2017.

Riggs grew up in Fordyce, had chaired the orchestra foundation's board of directors and previously retired from a 25-year career at Stephens Inc.

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Foundation oversees the orchestra's endowment and has the sole aim of supporting the orchestra, which operates as the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Society.

But the two entities are separate "to keep everything clean," said Christina Littlejohn, the orchestra's executive director.

The endowment earns interest, and that money flows to the orchestra, but the lump sum can't be touched, Littlejohn said.

That way, if someone like Riggs wants to make a lasting donation, she'll know it will live "in perpetuity," Littlejohn said.

Before Riggs' gift, the endowment was at $5 million. It was projected to earn $167,700 for the orchestra in fiscal 2018.

With Riggs' donation, the orchestra is projected to get $284,000 from the foundation for fiscal 2020.

That payout -- estimated by Littlejohn to be about $100,000 more, annually -- will last "forever and ever and ever, amen," she said.

"We're just so thankful. [Riggs is] just so generous."

The money will fund three different undertakings for the orchestra.

Right now, one educator is teaching 200 children to play violin as part of the orchestra's Sturgis Music Academy, Littlejohn said.

The academy began 18 months ago, and that level of demand was unexpected, she said.

With Riggs' gift, the orchestra can comfortably hire a new music educator in the violin or the viola, Littlejohn said.

The money also will help retain the orchestra's about 60 contracted musicians, including 10 who play in two resident string quartets, Littlejohn said.

Instead of losing talent to Chicago or Cleveland, additional money can fund somewhat experimental programs so that musicians can "develop artistically," she said.

Playing in venues other than the Robinson Center in downtown Little Rock is one way to achieve that goal.

David Gerstein, the orchestra's principal cellist, said he wants to begin hosting "micro-concerts" in local breweries.

"The whole idea is to give the musicians a hands-on chance to play what we love playing the most," he said.

It wouldn't be 90 minutes of silent listening, he said. Rather, the musicians would interact with the audience.

Gerstein said he'd love to pair a flight of beers with different pieces of music.

Riggs' gift will also endow the principal cello chair, which will permanently hold her name. It will be the seventh chair that is named for a substantial donor.

Riggs specifically requested her name be attached to the cello spot, Littlejohn said.

The principal cellist is a leadership role in the orchestra, explained Philip Mann, now in his eighth season as the orchestra's music director.

Mann said he and his colleagues count themselves lucky to be the beneficiary of Riggs' philanthropy.

Even more than financial gifts, Riggs gave her time, talents and energy and shared her network of friends, Mann said.

"This is an extraordinary and enduring gesture of support for the beauty of our art form," he said. It will "continue making Arkansas a more beautiful place for generations to come."

A known music enthusiast, Riggs was also a former Arkansas insurance commissioner. She worked as legislative and budget director for Gov. Frank White, and directed research and committee staff members for the state Legislature, a news release said.

Riggs' husband, Lamar Riggs, said in a statement that his wife "loved the sound of the orchestra and recognized the ability of its members and leadership. Her gift commemorates her memory and its melody."

Littlejohn stressed what a significant financial contribution Riggs made. When Littlejohn became executive director nine years ago, the orchestra's finances were "really shaky," the director said.

For the past eight years, the orchestra has broken even, she said.

For fiscal 2016, the most recent year available online, the organization took in $1.9 million in contributions and $1.66 million in program service revenue, totaling $2.97 million.

Expenses ran just above that amount, the organization's 990 form shows.

With fiscal stability, Littlejohn has a whiteboard's worth of ways to enhance Arkansas music education.

She said she would love to see "thousands and thousands of children" learning instruments.

Littlejohn and other staff members have also tossed around the idea for a headquarters that could function as a community space.

Riggs' $1.8 million donation made some long-standing ideas possible, Littlejohn said.

"Now it's kind of like, I've got a little breathing room, and I can dream again."

Metro on 02/21/2018

Print Headline: Record $1.8M donated to Arkansas Symphony

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