Kimmel broadens entertainment offerings in search for new revenue

Scheduled performers include (clockwise from right) Gustavo Dudamel, the Harlem String Quartet, Chick Correa, and Buddy Valastro. Credits: RINGO H.W. CHIU (Dudamel), MARVIN ORENDAIN (Valastro)
Scheduled performers include (clockwise from right) Gustavo Dudamel, the Harlem String Quartet, Chick Correa, and Buddy Valastro. Credits: RINGO H.W. CHIU (Dudamel), MARVIN ORENDAIN (Valastro)
Posted: July 23, 2012

For next season, its 12th, the Kimmel Center will be busier than ever — with Broadway shows in the Academy of Music and more commercial presentations such as pop acts, comedians, and the Cake Boss in partnership with Live Nation, AEG, and other for-profit entities.

Pure art, which inevitably requires philanthropic support, remains a part of the Kimmel mission. But commercial acts are gaining an edge, fattening the Kimmel's earned-revenue column.

"We have 8,000 seats per night to entertain our community," says Kimmel president Anne Ewers. "We have the ability to offer a huge panoply of opportunities for people on the Kimmel Center campus, the chance to support and to complement what our resident companies are offering. We have six of our resident companies focused on classical European music, and so what we can do is unique, special to us, something that serves a broad public with music theater, jazz, and popular offerings."

Gone is the Kimmel's Great Orchestra series, which brought Philadelphians the Vienna Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Kirov, and other imports. Absent, in fact, are most of the Kimmel's series; Ewers says the center is dropping the subscription model that has been meat and potatoes to performing-arts groups for decades. Patrons buying tickets to several events may be rewarded with a benefit program whose details are as yet undetermined, but, in response to its changing model of selling and its growing percentage of pop acts, the Kimmel will move its marketing money and energy from selling subscriptions through a big annual season announcement to single tickets promoted through both traditional and social media.

Kimmel leaders say the $500,000 it costs to do a complete season brochure and announcement was yielding about $400,000 in subscription sales — not enough, in their opinion, to continue it.

When the Kimmel put out public word electronically in March that tickets for stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari were going on sale, the event — which had already rung up impressive numbers in a presale to Kimmel members and Ansari's own fans — sold out in three hours, Kimmel programming vice president Matt Wolf said. Another show was added.

"It went out through his fan club, through social media here and very little paid media support, and it was just an explosion," said Wolf. That strategy won't work with all art forms, he pointed out, but "with a lot of the pop acts you can get out of the gate pretty quick with word of mouth."

The Fresh Beat Band, a frisky pop act aimed at 5-year-olds and backed by the promotional muscle of Nick Jr., sold out in similar fashion — in part thanks to Web scalpers — after its spring appearance at the Merriam Theater (managed by the Kimmel) went on sale.

The programming and marketing changes come in response to financial pressures. A stagehands' strike and resulting higher labor costs, an unpaid rent tab left from the Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy, a reduction in funding from the state, and a down economy have forced the Kimmel to seek more money by booking commercial ventures. A new ground-floor restaurant and renovated rooftop garden open for rental are expected to begin producing more earned revenue in 2012-13.

Classical and jazz aren't going away. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and Philadelphia Orchestra remain as resident companies, and the Kimmel's biennial Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts will reappear in 2013. Ewers says Kimmel co-presentations with groups such as PCMS will increase.

The restructuring, however, will see the Kimmel's own presenting arm drastically reduce imports — a startling departure from the kind of full-fledged arts center Kimmel planners envisioned when they opened the center in 2001.

"Among some of the greatest concerts I've seen are the visiting orchestras and the recitals, but unfortunately the economics behind them don't work right now, and we have had to take a look at how it fits into the larger puzzle," said Wolf. "The world's greatest soloists are playing on the PCMS series, and with the Philadelphia Orchestra we have one of the world's great orchestras doing work right here."

In terms of classical offerings for 2012-13, the Kimmel brings in the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela on Dec. 5 with conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Flutist James Galway arrives March 19 to play Debussy, Mozart, Bizet, and music "in the spirit of St. Patrick's Day." Two internationally renowned organists — Isabelle Demers and Thomas Trotter — will animate Verizon Hall's organ in separate recitals.

Visiting jazz artists include Chick Corea, Gary Burton, the Harlem String Quartet, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Christian McBride. Philadanco has two runs in the Perelman Theater, in December and April.

The Broadway season, the Kimmel's largest to date, includes Warhorse, Million Dollar Quartet, Jekyll and Hyde, Catch Me If You Can, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Sister Act, and The Addams Family.

Programming for PIFA, slated for March 28 through April 27, has not yet been announced. If the slate is anything like that of the inaugural festival, it will account for a substantial portion of the Kimmel's creative output. The Kimmel is working with its resident companies on some of these presentations. Rather than the $10 million budget for the first arts festival, the Kimmel is working with $5 million for producing and marketing PIFA. Ewers says that money is still being raised.

By reducing its own pure-art presentations, the Kimmel is advancing an evolution in mission supported by the William Penn Foundation and others of the center becoming more supportive of its eight indigenous resident troupes. The logic goes like this: If the Kimmel can make more money through earned revenue via Broadway in the Academy and commercial acts, it can ask less money of its resident companies. William Penn has recently awarded the Kimmel a $2.5 million grant so the center can, in turn, give rent relief to the orchestra, Philly Pops, and others.

"Because of the rent concessions that we gave this year and next, their money goes to help fill those gaps until our earned revenue can help fill that gap," said Ewers.

While the reshuffling of programming may preserve art as the domain of the resident companies, it is recitals and visiting orchestras in Verizon Hall that take the biggest hit. The Master Musicians Series is no more. The only non-organ recital (the organ series benefits from having its own endowment) next season is Galway's.

"Filling a 2,500-seat hall is a challenge," said Ewers, "even for great artists like Ben Heppner and Kiri Te Kanawa, just thinking of some who have not been able to fill it. Sadly, across the country interest in recitals has dwindled away, so one has to be very judicious."

Ewers says she tried to save the visiting orchestra series.

"In all the time that I have been here, I religiously tried to find support for great orchestra series, and last year I said, ‘OK, I am going to do an all-out effort, put all my fund-raising energy and acumen into it.' I reached out to every single person who subscribed and, depending on giving potential, met with them, talked on the phone, or wrote a letter and followed it up."

Ewers said in order to preserve the series she needed $120,000 in philanthropy to augment the earned revenue. She could raise only half.

"That, to me, and the fact that over time the audiences had decreased, was a clear indication that people just didn't want it enough, and I felt like I really had given it my all."

When asked, former Kimmel leaders were shy about commenting on the new direction. But William Penn Foundation president Jeremy Nowak said the center's response to financial pressures makes sense.

"They have a cost structure issue," he said, "and right now their business model says the following: Do everything you can to support the resident companies, and everything else either has to pay for itself or make money. I think they're doing what they have to do right now to survive and to help the resident companies."

Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch. Information on performances at the Kimmel Center is available at 215-893-1999 or www.kimmelcenter.org.

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