Can some Paris in April redefine region's cachet?

The Parisian street fair April 30 will culminate with a performance by the troupe La Compagnie Transe Express - 100 feet above Broad Street.
The Parisian street fair April 30 will culminate with a performance by the troupe La Compagnie Transe Express - 100 feet above Broad Street.
Posted: April 03, 2011

It will unspool over more than three weeks, from the Kimmel Center to Chestnut Hill to Cheyney University and back to Broad Street - 145 performances, exhibitions, lectures, screenings, readings, French lessons, wine tastings, and a street fair, all in the spirit of Paris 1910-20, with its wild profusion of artistic energies.

Conceived by officials at the Kimmel Center and underwritten by a $10 million grant bestowed by Lenore Annenberg just before her death in March 2009, the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts - PIFA - is an almost-indefinable citywide collaboration of organizations large and small. Starting with Thursday's opening-night gala, it will showcase 1,500 artists during its 25 days, a rare instance of a well-funded festival making use of mostly local talent to create unique events.

PIFA is not Philadelphia's first regionwide festival to include virtually all artistic disciplines - 1991's seven-week Festival Mythos comes to mind - but it is arguably the most ambitious in funding, marketing juice, and breadth of organizational involvement.

Will it work? What does that even mean?

For the organizers at the Kimmel, success will be measured not simply by dollars generated in the region (their studies show the festival could yield $31 million and 400 jobs), but also by the size and enthusiasm of audiences, particularly younger, more diverse audiences; by the critical assessment of performances, many of which involve unusual collaborations and concepts; and ultimately by the city's own sense of its artistic identity.

"I think our measurements are going to be: Did we move the needle on Philadelphia's perceptions as a city of arts and culture?" said PIFA executive director J. Edward Cambron, a former marketing vice president at the Philadelphia Orchestra. "Is it more robust than before? Did our partners have a great experience with this? Was it good for the whole arts and culture community?"

Many, if not quite all, major arts institutions and organizations in the city are involved in some way, often in unusual collaborations: the Pennsylvania Ballet performing Pulcinella with the Philadelphia Orchestra; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Gershman Y, and the Philadelphia Theatre Company presenting a cabaret show, Bella: The Color of Love, about painter Marc Chagall's wife; the Wilma Theater and BalletX creating a dance-theater piece inspired by surrealist playwright Guillaume Apollinaire.

Although festival officials decline to be too specific about how the $10 million in Annenberg funding has been used, PIFA has wholly or partially funded 80 percent of the 31 commissioned works that will premiere regionwide in April.

Of the 145 events tied to the festival, which has expansively interpreted its Paris theme to capitalize on artistic "collaboration, innovation, and creativity," PIFA directly inspired 64 percent, 33 percent were reworked to fit with PIFA, and 3 percent would have happened anyway, officials said.

Organizations and artists involved are expected to appeal to a broad range of ethnic and racial groups, and the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corp. has launched a campaign touting events appealing to younger African Americans: Philly 360 PIFA Underground.

The city itself has become a PIFA partner. In the City Hall art gallery, the Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy is mounting "City Hall: The French Connection," a show inspired by the Beaux Arts building that rises all around it. Chief cultural officer Gary Steuer also helped smooth the way for a massive PIFA street fair April 30 that will close Broad Street between Chestnut and Lombard Streets while high-wire acts, a Ferris wheel, and two stages are rolled into place for live performances.

"We see it as a great opportunity to highlight the extraordinary international assets we have here in Philadelphia," Steuer said. "This is not just about importing art and artists."

Said Anne Ewers, Kimmel Center president and chief executive: "The city recognizes the impact this is going to have and the spotlight that it puts on the arts in our region and, frankly, on everything Philadelphia has to offer."

That's the point, Cambron echoed.

"That was always at the core of what this festival is all about," he said. "That's what inspired Mrs. Annenberg - a real celebration of the art and culture of Philadelphia, and encouraging those organizations to collaborate together and to work with artists that would come in. That was at the core of what leads to this festival and what it is."

Neither Cambron nor Ewers would disclose the sums given to individual organizations to cover the commissioning of new work or the costs of production. Cambron did say 50 percent of the festival budget has covered arts activities, 30 percent is devoted to marketing initiatives, and 20 percent to administration, legal matters, and overhead.

But the "arts budget" - roughly $5 million - includes not only the costs of performances and commissions. In the expansive definition applied by festival officials, the building of a 81-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower, complete with 5,000 lights, under the arching glass of the Kimmel Center was part of the arts budget. So was the construction and installation of model trains, planes, and dirigibles that chug and float along wires above the center lobby.

The cost of the giant Ferris wheel, which will provide ticketed rides during the Broad Street fair, will also come out of the arts budget, as will a recorded "soundscape" inside the Kimmel - part of the effort to draw the public in for free performances throughout the festival. (Ewers said one PIFA goal was to make the nearly 10-year-old private, nonprofit arts center appear less sullen and remote to the public.)

Calls to a number of organizations produced some financial information. The Pennsylvania Ballet, whose collaborating with the orchestra on the new production of Stravinsky's Pulcinella is choreographed by Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo, will receive about $200,000 to cover the costs of commission and production, said Michael Scolamiero, company executive director.

The Painted Bride Art Center, which has commissioned Atypical, a collaboration involving performance artist Ryat, percussionist and composer Francois Zayas, and classical Indian Bharatanatyam dancer-choreographer Viji Rao, received $3,000 in support of the commission.

The Arden Theatre Company, which commissioned Wanamaker's Pursuit by playwright Rogelio Martinez, and Astral Artists, which commissioned the multimedia Who Stole the Mona Lisa? with an animated Firebird by Micah Chambers-Goldberg, both received $10,000 from PIFA.

Out of its administrative budget, the festival will reimburse the city for costs incurred during the street fair - sanitation, security, and the like - which city officials said would be about $92,400.

PIFA officials said they were required to spend all the Annenberg grant this year and were not releasing financial information about specific projects or marketing efforts because it could spawn organizational resentments.

"We're in a position with so many arts organizations partnering with us across the city that to set this up as to who received what, how much for what, is just not a path I would want to go down," Cambron said.

"Organizations will look at the costs of certain aspects and question whether this should or should not have been spent on that. Should we have a street fair or not? Should we have funded a particular organization's project or not?

"We believe in the lobby [expenditures at the Kimmel Center] because it's a way to bring the festival to a central location. It's a free event that people can experience. For 25 days, free performances in the lobby every day at 5 o'clock - that's of incredible value to the festival."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594



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