Should the Academy Ball stay or go?
Your answer probably depends on your age and wealth. It’s also likely dictated by what you know about the ball and why it exists.
To some, the Academy Ball is a hoary spectacle of the haves in an era that increasingly shudders at the accumulation of wealth. It may seem frivolous to even consider at the moment, given the coronavirus pandemic and its threat to public gatherings of all kinds.
But the reason the city’s biggest social event was launched, in 1957, was not to celebrate wealth; rather, it was to extract money from people of means to save a building in need of constant restoration. And so planning for the future of the Academy Ball goes on, as it must, to keep a civic treasure intact.
The Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball is itself a treasure — unlikely and weird in an only-in-Philadelphia way, and for these reasons alone it seems like this odd birthday party for a building should continue with at least some of its eccentricity intact.
It’s also true, though, that too many bigger issues hinge on the future shape of the event for things to go on exactly as they have. Planners have called a timeout on the Academy Concert and Ball, and they are wise stewards for doing so. Some kind of bash will happen in January of 2021 and beyond to celebrate the opera house that has been central to civic life in Philadelphia since it opened in 1857. But what kind of bash should it be?
As with many of the changes gripping Philadelphia’s arts institutions, this is about money. Given the tens of millions needed to properly endow, restore, and weather-seal the historic structure, the ball, as the major annual fund-raiser, is actually an inefficient vehicle for raising funds. Costs of putting on the event are so high that it nets only around 10% of what it brings in.
The wider ripple effect of the ball on fund-raising is hard to measure; someone might make a multi-million-dollar donation or bequest fueled by the cumulative emotion of having attended the ball all of his or her life.
Just as important, though, and very much related to the fund-raising question, is the message the event transmits on behalf of the Academy as well as the Philadelphia Orchestra, which owns the building.
If I were asked to free-associate, I’d connect the Academy Ball with words like rich and elite. The reality of who goes and why is actually at odds (mostly) with its reputation. But the event has traded in this kind of imaging for decades, and no matter what format the fete takes next, leaders must do something dramatic to change how it is perceived.
Foundations and corporate giving arms today are especially conscious of the message their money sends. White tie is no longer a good look for arts and culture. Rolling up your shirtsleeves and doing good is.
This raises the question, of course, of why the orchestra musicians (the men, at least) still don white tie and tails for most subscription concerts.
But fancy attire by itself isn’t a problem. It’s about the context. The Academy Ball’s dress code could easily survive if the newly configured event became just one event of several welcoming visitors into the Academy — all sorts of visitors, that is.
Among the possibilities: a series of events over a weekend that could include a free concert and tours of the Academy. An open street fair showcasing the outside and inside of the building would extend the welcome mat into the city. Distributing free tickets to performances that weekend would help to bring back patrons for Broadway, opera, and ballet.
Instead of a pricey headliner for the anniversary concert itself, how about naming a resident artist for the year who could work in partnership with schools and who would then perform at the anniversary concert?
That concert could be broadcast and recorded, so this historic building and what goes on in it could be shared with the rest of the world. It is not unrealistic to think that restoration of the building could draw support nationally and internationally.
Most philanthropy, though, will come locally. And that money depends on being able to make the case on ball weekend and beyond for the Academy as being useful in the widest sense — as the place where college graduations happen, mayors are sworn in, children learn about the instruments of the orchestra in the intimate ballroom, and aspiring ballerinas come to take in their first Nutcracker.
All these things happen currently, but somehow the message isn’t getting out.
More engagement with children, please. I’ve never felt that the Academy’s marble, gilt, and red velvet were overly formal or off-putting. Children seem to agree. They are sophisticated readers of sensory stimulation.
The awe with which an early experience in the building leaves visitors gets hardwired into memory. This is where a sense of ownership is born.
The Kimmel Center was built on the idea that it would be a more open and welcoming social atmosphere than the Academy. That hasn’t quite panned out. Verizon Hall sounds and feels good, but the lobby spaces of the larger complex are cold, literally and figuratively.
A master plan to fully renovate the Kimmel lobby has so far failed to draw funding. And at the moment, at least, the Academy’s cozy ancillary spaces are more conducive to social interaction than anything at the Kimmel.
I didn’t hear the performances in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s subscription concert return to the Academy this past winter. But several listeners told me what a stirring encounter it was for them. There is still a strong appetite for experiencing the orchestra in its old home.
A good deal of Philadelphia has its emotional life tied up in that building. It would likely buoy fund-raising for both the orchestra and the Academy if the ensemble could return there for several weeks per season.
One idea that’s been floated is holding the ball every five years. I’m not sure that would maintain the kind of constant focus on the building it needs. It’s also hard to see how that would be a better financial model for raising money.
It also leaves out the ball’s importance as one of the social quirks that makes the city special. There’s a meta aspect to this costume party with funny social overtones: We know we don’t belong in this social stratum, but since that “we” is most of the people in the room, we tend to feel more entertained than excluded by it all.
The ball may be the only time of the year that Philadelphia’s political, philanthropic, business, social, and arts sectors assemble elbow to elbow. To attend is to have permission to walk up to anyone and strike up a conversation about anything. In an era of digital silos, the value of human assembly should not be overlooked.
This is a clarifying moment and a happy one, for the Academy and for the city. We are talking about a future for an architectural survivor in a place that has lost many of its great old theaters to make way for the bland.
And one reason we’re having this conversation is because there is still high demand for a building whose fabric has only been made more sparkling and historically accurate in recent years (though restoration needs are serious and ongoing).
We have all the best reasons to celebrate. All we need now is to come up with the perfect birthday party and to make sure all the right people are invited — which is to say, everyone.