Festival aims to draw art fans to Philly

Puppet builder Lorna Howley shows director Jay Wahl a puppet movemement, while cast members for the musical production "Flash of Time" watch.
Puppet builder Lorna Howley shows director Jay Wahl a puppet movemement, while cast members for the musical production "Flash of Time" watch. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 25, 2013

When it was still just a glint in its planners' eyes, the Kimmel Center promised to be the kind of place where you could show up at any time and commune with art. Its restaurant was to be of such culinary ambition that it would become a destination in itself. On the indigenous side of programming, resident companies would thrive under a glass dome of cooperative marketing and newfound visibility. Among imports, you could find the Vienna Philharmonic, jazz, a film series, or a marionette troupe doing a jewel-box version of The Magic Flute - maybe all on the same day.

The Kimmel's monthlong Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, opening Thursday at sites all over the city, is a reminder that some of this was achieved, and some not, in the Kimmel's first dozen years. This festival serves to crystallize potential as yet unrealized.

Before it opened, the Kimmel's arts mission dovetailed with the motivations of its volunteer developer, the late Willard G. Rouse 3d, who saw the $275 million project as an economic engine for the city and a chance to break down barriers with suburbanites loath to venture into Center City after work hours or on weekends.

Missions evolve, and the Kimmel's surely has since opening night in December 2001. But, except for the visiting orchestra series, which has fallen by the wayside, the Kimmel is still intent on concretizing - and funding - its original dream.

Much of that aspiration now centers on PIFA. Kimmel president Anne Ewers sees the festival as a manifold opportunity for arts, business, and the image of the city to converge into one joyous mass - 31 days of Rufus Wainwright and Benjamin Britten, Savion Glover and flamenco - showing the potential of a civic space pumping with activity night and day.

The first PIFA, in 2011, brought in 177,000 visitors. Ewers says the Kimmel is committed to making the festival a reliable biennial event, and she aims this time to entice more than 200,000 visitors into the plaza.

Last time, "because of the magnitude of what was going on and the uniqueness and interest . . . many people found that, 'Wow, Center City is a wonderful place. I really want to make the time to come back down. I didn't get robbed, I parked my car.' All those things people can sometimes fear didn't happen," Ewers says, "and concern melted away in the excitement PIFA brings.

"I also hope PIFA makes people realize what an extraordinary arts and culture city we are, the fact that in Travel and Leisure [magazine] we were number one in terms of arts and culture in the U.S. - and that came out shortly after PIFA occurred. I would think we had some impact on it. I am hoping that our region and our nation understand what is here."

This festival will be different from the last one, which was funded with a $10 million gift from Leonore Annenberg. With a $5.3 million budget, the 2013 iteration - whose time-travel theme asks, "If you had a time machine . . . " - offers a third of the number of events, a mix of Kimmel-presented imports and projects constructed by local arts groups.

Last time, monitors with hand clickers counted heads. This time, an enormous $450,000 interactive "time machine" will do more than gather numbers: While visitors study interactive kiosks within the large tube now occupying much of the lobby, the Kimmel will study the visitors, gathering e-mail addresses and birthdates that will help it understand who comes, why, and whether they can be brought back for performances and other events throughout the year.

"I hope the takeaway is, 'Wow there is fantastic stuff going on, and I want to be a part of it,' " Ewers said. "When I take a cab and ask the cab driver to bring me to the Kimmel Center, 80 percent of them know where the Kimmel is, but few of them say they've been inside."

As the Kimmel shifts from presenting European-based, traditional art forms toward commercial acts, it hopes to make participation more populist. Its support of traditional art forms is increasingly taking the shape of collaborations with its resident companies, such as the Philadelphia Orchestra - a dynamic that will play out in the festival's offerings.

What PIFA already is proving, Ewers said, is its power to draw new funders.

"I am thrilled to say people have really caught the imagination of the festival. In part it's corporations who have seen the opportunity to connect with something that has such economic impact for the 31 days. People who have never supported us have come through - TD Bank for the first time ever, Dow [Chemical Co.], which has never supported us, Merck, which has not done so in a long time." (Some have previously sponsored the Kimmel's resident companies.)

Once the Kimmel's potential has been cemented by the spectacle of thousands enjoying it - once it becomes the civic square that planners promised - Ewers feels she will have success raising the money needed for another round of renovations to make the center more hospitable.

One key element, a restaurant, was supposed to be finished in time for the 2013 PIFA. The old restaurant is long closed, and a new one has been delayed by value-engineering but is expected to begin construction after the festival closes, with a September opening date.

Key, too, is making visitors feel welcome. Often, wandering into the lobby's vast space during the day means being greeted by a security guard who asks you to state your business.

"People wanted to see the plaza as an active, vibrant space," Ewers said. "That, to me, is what's so thrilling - it is there to see, to be what people envisioned it could be."

From a Month of PIFA, a Handful of Highlights

Philadelphia artist Violet Oakley was dispatched in 1946 to record opening meetings of the United Nations and came back with a group of portraits of world leaders of the time. March 30–June 30, at the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill

From Seneca Falls to Philadelphia: "Fourth of July 1876 and the Women of the Centennial" features archival photos from the early days of the women's suffrage movement and contemporary interpretations in book form through the Philadelphia Center for the Book. April 1-May 18, at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, Washington Square

Savion Glover taps the world premiere of Dance Space, an improvisational solo dance and percussive piece "in an immersive setting with a fiber-optic curtain and illusory lighting to give the audience the sense of being outside looking up at the night sky." 8 p.m. March 30, at the Academy of Music

Network for New Music uses the University of Pennsylvania's role in early computer development (ENIAC) to survey computer music in works of Paul Lansky, Mario Davidovsky, John Chowning, James Primosch, and Judith Shatin. 8 p.m. April 5, at Penn's Fisher-Bennett Hall

The birth of the first female gynecologist, Trotula of Salerno, in the 11th century is celebrated by an all-female installation work of flamenco dance company Pasión y Arte and postmodern dancers Fresh Blood. April 5-7 at Fleischer Art Memorial

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, visits with a program focusing on Benjamin Britten. 3 p.m. April 6, in Verizon Hall

Robert Glasper, with his jazz, hip-hop and R&B blend, reinterprets Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life album. 8 p.m. April 14 in Verizon Hall

Where Heaven's Dew Divides Dancer/choreographers Germaine Ingram and Leah Stein explore Free African Society founders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones through dance, improvised vocalization, and video projection.

April 17-19 at the Kimmel's Innovation Studio

Choreographer Christopher L. Huggins, formerly of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, creates The Big Bang, a subject no less momentous than the start of everything. April 19-21, in the Perelman Theater

Panamanian pianist and jazz composer Danilo Pérez and his quintet visit the Pacific Ocean and explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. 8 p.m. April 26 in the Perelman Theater

- Peter Dobrin

Coming Friday

'What if you had a time machine . . .'

So much to see and hear, so little time! Find help navigating the moments past, present and future that add up to the monthlong 2013 Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.  

In Weekend

For information about the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, Thursday to April 27, including a complete schedule of events, go to www.pifa.org

Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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