by marni prichard manko | January 5, 2012 | Lifestyle
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.
|FROM TOP: Peter Nero and the Philly Pops at Verizon Hall; The inaugural Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, along South Broad Street; a PIFA performance by La Compagnie Transe Express|
These performances run the entertainment gambit. Yo-Yo Ma and K.D. Lang have performed where Chris Rock and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater captivated audiences earlier. The Kimmel’s Broadway Season has brought in nationally renowned shows to record-breaking audiences, with Wicked, The Lion King, Spamalot, and Jersey Boys a mere sampling of the imports. The Kimmel Center umbrella, through its breadth and caliber of performances, truly has helped Philadelphia become a world-class city for the arts. And much of that success has come under the mindful eye of president and CEO Anne Ewers. “We have passed through two extremely important stages: construction and startup,” she said when taking office in 2007. “We are now ready to take a leap forward. I do think that the Kimmel Center is definitely poised for the next stage of evolution in its life cycle.” The evolution has been nothing short of stunning.
In her first year alone, the petite powerhouse—who started her career as an assistant stage director in opera—retired the Kimmel’s $30 million construction debt, helped raise its endowment from $40 million to $72 million, garnered $10 million to establish an annual citywide festival, and even closed the fiscal year with a $1.2 million surplus that could be directed to capital improvements.
But no one was immune from the recent economic downturn, and Ewers used both lauded and maligned measures to ride out the storm. In her restructuring of the center, the number of Kimmel Center Presents series was initially reduced from nine to five. The Kimmel began partnering with copromoters such as Live Nation, AEG, and local impresario Larry Magid to help reach a broader audience and increase revenue while minimizing risk. It assumed management of the University of the Arts’ Merriam Theater in 2009 to help create productions and continued to collaborate with the revered Shubert Organization on theatrical presentations at the Academy and the Forrest Theatre. It even lowered the rent it charges its financially strapped companies, with Ewers calling them the “lifeblood of the Center.”
Ewers’s vision goes beyond numbers and bottom lines. She was the mastermind behind last spring’s inaugural 25-day Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, an idea she first pitched when interviewing for her current position. “From its very inception, our goals for the festival were clear,” says Ewers. “We hoped that both residents and tourists alike would experience—many for the first time—Philadelphia’s treasure trove of arts and culture.” Her hopes were far exceeded. With a $10 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation, PIFA went on to become an unmitigated success. For those 25 days, 135 presentations celebrating music, circus arts, dance, hip-hop culture, architecture, history, film, science, fine arts, literature, and other genres were held in varying venues across the city. The Kimmel served as the hub, of course, with more than 177,000 people stopping in and enjoying some of PIFA’s largest events, including the twice-nightly Eiffel Tower light-and-sound show and the Last Party in Paris. It all culminated with the PIFA Street Fair, during which South Broad Street was flooded with people stunned by the unforgettable midair musical performance by La Compagnie Transe Express.
Now Ewers is on to her next big venture—the Lights Up On Home Anniversary Celebration, in honor of the Kimmel’s 10th anniversary. The celebration pays homage to Philly’s art and culture legends with some 50 events. “Our celebration incorporates the extraordinary talent of this region and mirrors the diverse interests of the regional audience we serve,” she says.
As for the Kimmel Center’s second decade, Ewers is optimistic. “Many new initiatives will take center stage. We want to ensure that the Kimmel Center is a warm and welcoming environment for everyone to enjoy. It should feel like home.” Apt words from the woman who has deftly helped it become just that for legions of Philadelphians.
photography by jeff goldberg (exterior); evelyn taylor (opening); EVELYN TAYLOR (PIFA); RUSTY KENNEDY (TRANSE EXPRESS); jim roese (ewers)