The Kimmel Center's Next Chapter
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Ten years ago, at the Kimmel Center’s opening night
Ten years ago this winter, Philadelphia’s social and cultural landscape was dark, a nadir amplified by the lingering malaise of September 11. But all it took was one dazzling masterpiece of design ingenuity in the heart of our city to turn it all around. On Broad Street, a block-wide brick, steel, and glass structure with a soaring vaulted roof was nearing completion—and giving the city something inspiring to believe in. It was a Rafael Viñoly–designed building that the Travel Channel would soon anoint one of the modern world’s seven architectural wonders. It held a performance hall that singer Lyle Lovett deemed “my favorite room in the world.” It was a concert hall that Le Monde mused “Paris can only dream about.” It was the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and its existence has profoundly changed the cultural and socioeconomic fabric of Philadelphia forever.
|A performance of Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake|
In the mid- to late ’90s, Philadelphia was enjoying a renaissance. Stephen Starr and Neil Stein were the masterminds behind Center City’s culinary awakening. High-end retailers like Tiffany & Co. began flooding Walnut Street. Upscale art galleries dotted Old City. But without a hub to join its diverse cultural spokes, the city’s arts and culture scene was being left behind.
Mayor Ed Rendell, with the help of his then wife, Judge Midge Rendell, was hell-bent on developing Philadelphia into a world-class tourist destination—and the creation of a building that could house the city’s vast performing arts community on his new Avenue of the Arts (Broad Street) was essential to that vision. Rendell worked tirelessly in the way that only he could, cajoling the state’s biggest philanthropists, corporations, and government officials into giving financial backing to his dream, which at the time was being called the Regional Performing Arts Center. The Rendells “were the leaders, the energizers, the coaxers, the wheedlers, the persuaders, and the inspirers who made the Performing Arts Center possible,” says Phyllis W. Beck, then chair of the Independence Foundation, whose donation ultimately funded the center’s Rendell Room.
In the end, Rendell and his cohorts ended up raising hundreds of millions of dollars, with some of the world’s most renowned philanthropists donating massive amounts to the cause. Familiar names such as Perelman, Hamilton, and the William Penn Foundation joined corporations like Verizon, Comcast, Merck, and PECO in gifting the bulk of the approximately $235 million necessary to create the architectural masterpiece. But no one championed the venture like Sidney Kimmel, billionaire founder and chairman of Jones Apparel Group and the largest private donor. To honor his enormous contributions (nearly $60 million to date), the Regional Performing Arts Center was rebranded the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts. “It is my privilege to give something back to the people of Philadelphia, with the promise that today’s youth will learn and grow through the arts,” Kimmel said at the time. “This Center belongs to all of us.... and I am thrilled that this dream has finally become a reality.”
Today Kimmel Center Inc. has taken over as the undeniable cornerstone of all arts and cultural endeavors in the region. It is a performance machine of unparalleled proportions, managing the largest number of resident companies in the country, second only to New York’s Lincoln Center. Kimmel Center Inc. runs the 450,000-square-foot Kimmel Center (housing the 2,547-seat Verizon Hall and the 651-seat Perelman Theater) and manages the 2,900-seat Academy of Music. Together these two arenas serve as home to eight resident performing arts organizations: The Philadelphia Orchestra, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Ballet, The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, American Theater Arts for Youth, Philadanco, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and Peter Nero and the Philly Pops. There is also Kimmel Center Presents, a program that offers diverse choices to complement presentations by the other resident companies. Other activities include artsin- education programming, provided by the Merck Arts Education Center, and free entertainment throughout the year featuring a wide range of local and regional artists. All in all, a staggering 800-plus performances take place every year in the Kimmel Center’s multiple venues, generating an estimated $350 million.
photography by jeff goldberg (exterior); evelyn taylor (opening); EVELYN TAYLOR (PIFA); RUSTY KENNEDY (TRANSE EXPRESS); jim roese (ewers)