City's cultural mecca set for party, renewal

Opening night for the Kimmel Center, in December 2001, with limousines lined up outside the South Broad Street entrance of the Avenue of the Arts' largest venue.
Opening night for the Kimmel Center, in December 2001, with limousines lined up outside the South Broad Street entrance of the Avenue of the Arts' largest venue.
Posted: October 28, 2013

Twenty years ago, Ed Rendell stood in a freezing drizzle at the southeast corner of Broad and South Streets and told a small crowd to "close your eyes and dream."

The then-mayor painted a portrait of an Avenue of the Arts, a boom-time boulevard of cultural delights. Thousands would crowd its sidewalks after performances. Block after block would buzz with activity. "They pour out on South Broad Street," he said. "Think of what that will mean to us as a city!"

So ground was broken for the Arts Bank, a former bank acquired by the William Penn Foundation for conversion to a 238-seat theater and the first footprint on the new Avenue of the Arts, intended to stretch from Temple University 10 miles south to Washington Avenue.

On Tuesday, Avenue of the Arts Inc., the nonprofit created in 1993 to "reinvigorate Broad Street as the arts and entertainment heart and soul of Philadelphia," will mark its 20th anniversary with a cocktail reception honoring Rendell, the man with the plan, and Bernard Watson, AAI's first chairman.

There is much to celebrate: South Broad Street has showcased some of the region's - and the nation's - finest artistic enterprises, and has helped the city achieve wide recognition as a cultural center. New theaters and performance venues, and investment in street lighting and sidewalks, spawned commercial and residential expansion. Big banks were sold and gave way to hotels, stores, condos, and apartments.

Sputtering

But the Avenue also has faced well-documented problems - some financial, some managerial, some related to large societal and cultural trends.

Its North Broad Street component, always a stepchild, has achieved little traction. The new Arts Bank limped from the gate and within three years was absorbed by the University of the Arts largely for educational use. And the Avenue's potential as an engine for destination dining has sputtered, as a strip still largely dominated by national steak chains has struggled to retain ambitious local talent - though there are glimmers of new hope.

Still, says Sean Buffington, the university's president since 2007, "I do think, symbolically, it was important to create the Avenue, because it did signal the city's engagement with and the value of culture and the arts.

"The launch of an arts district helped to spark a kind of economic and cultural renaissance in different ways. But actually I think that renaissance, if you will, has metastasized throughout the city."

Since the Arts Bank opened in 1994, the Avenue has seen the 300-seat Wilma Theater open at Broad and Spruce in 1996, the Philadelphia Clef Club move into new quarters at Bainbridge and Fitzwater Streets in 1995, and the Brandywine Workshop into a new space next door in 1997.

The Avenue's behemoth, the Kimmel Center, with its two theaters - the 650-seat Perelman and the 2,500-seat Verizon Hall - at Broad and Spruce, opened in 2001, to provide a home for a half-dozen resident companies. The Philadelphia Theatre Company moved into its new 370-seat Suzanne Roberts Theater at Broad and Lombard Streets in 2007.

The move of the orchestra to the Kimmel from the Academy of Music opened that beautiful old house to full use by Opera Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Ballet, as well as providing a venue for traveling shows.

But perhaps the Avenue's biggest entity, one largely shielded from the vicissitudes of fluctuating audiences and ticket prices, is the 2,000-student University of the Arts. It owns not only the Arts Bank but also the 1,870-seat Merriam Theater between Spruce and Locust; the Gershman Y, with its gallery and small theater, at Broad and Pine; the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, between Pine and Spruce; and the Caplan Center for the Performing Arts, comprising a 130-seat recital hall and a 100-seat black-box theater atop the university's Terra Building at Broad and Walnut.

The Merriam is managed by the Kimmel Center (as is the Academy of Music), which seeks to book performances for a general audience in its satellite spaces, and increasingly into the Kimmel. The university focuses on its students and faculty; its performances are open to the public.

Young energy

Anne Ewers, president and chief executive of the Kimmel Center, called the university "the unsung hero" of the Avenue. She cited design and planning help, student artists who participate in competitions, the university's efforts in creating a pop-up garden, and student performers who have consistently participated in the Kimmel's free daytime performances in the vast interior Commonwealth Plaza.

The last is significant, Ewers said, because it has helped create a sense of activity at the Kimmel, countering its reputation as dead to the street.

The Kimmel's Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, held in 2011 and again this year, also "helped us figure out how to draw crowds into the plaza consistently," she said. "People are viewing this now as a true space for the community."

And PIFA's closing street festival has drawn hundreds of thousands to South Broad.

Such extra programming - festivals spilling outside of the boxy venue, and presentation of the arts in unusual forms and places - has almost been forced onto organizations on the Avenue.

That trend's the thing. Audiences for all performing-arts events in traditional forms are stagnant or dwindling around the country, and every organization on the Avenue has had to address the accelerating decline - which raises the question of whether the Avenue of the Arts was an anachronism at birth.

Absolutely not, says David B. Devan, general director of Opera Philadelphia, whose primary residence is the Academy of Music. "We wouldn't be the company we are today without the Avenue," he said. "Until the Kimmel Center opened, opera was stymied. We had no place to go. . . . When the Kimmel Center opened [and the orchestra moved], Voila! We have an opera house. It's the first time we became a fully functioning opera house."

For Blanka Zizka, artistic director of the Wilma, which existed in a small space on Sansom Street for some 15 years before moving center stage on Broad Street, the audience question is troubling.

"We are all facing a crisis because of the changing habits of our audience," she said. "That's because of technology. Technology is so pervasive now, and productive, to actually make an effort to go to the theater and pay for tickets is something people really have to decide to do."

An optimist

The Wilma faces no debt or deficit issues, but Zizka said she nevertheless needs to "energize the building." Costs continue to rise. More fund-raising is needed. More attention is focused on operations.

"We are running institutions for their own sake," she said. Instead, she wants to turn away from the financial and artistic costs of bringing in new actors, directors, and plays with every production, and perhaps begin to build a contained, Philadelphia-based unit that can create work together.

"I really believe that theater is the most collaborative art form, and collaboration is disappearing . . .. So, I am looking at how to revitalize it, how to bring it back."

Sara Garonzik, executive producing director at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, feels the same kinds of audience pressures. PTC presents comedy and film and runs a summer camp - all "to broaden the audience."

"We've been able to expand the scope and bring more people through the doors. It's about marketing," Garonzik said. After six years on the Avenue of the Arts, "I think maybe I'm an optimist. So much can be helped by smart marketing."

For Opera Philadelphia, establishing its artistic bona fides at the Academy of Music has also allowed the company to create a presence in multiple artistic spaces. Now, it also mounts chamber productions in the small Perelman Theater down the street. And, more to the point, it is moving out into the community, producing works in such non-opera venues as the new FringeArts building on Columbus Boulevard, and offering free outdoor screenings in non-arts locations such as Independence Mall.

"We couldn't do that if we weren't an institution of substance, and that is all related to the creation of the Avenue of the Arts," Devan said. "Density works."


ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594

@SPSalisbury

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