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A new cafe at Kimmel is the first step to a better arts center

Garces Trading Company at Kimmel’s crowds, though modest so far, are bringing a level of steady activity not seen at the Kimmel in many years.

The Garces Trading Co., a cafe in the main lobby at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Pa., on Friday, March, 3, 2023.
The Garces Trading Co., a cafe in the main lobby at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Pa., on Friday, March, 3, 2023.Read moreTyger Williams / Staff Photographer

The Kimmel Center was trumpeted as Philadelphia’s fifth public square — an 18-hour-per-day, seven-day-a-week arts center where you could show up anytime and find a concert or see a film.

But since it opened in 2001, the Kimmel has sent mixed signals about just how welcoming it really wants to be. Some of this has to do with the architecture — fortresslike from the outside, visually chilly on the inside — but also with the way the Kimmel has policed its spaces, which has sometimes been heavy-handed. On balance, though, this ostensibly public space has never lived up to its promise.

With the recent opening of a cafe in its lobby, Philadelphia’s major arts center is taking another run at inviting the city in.

Yes, I know: In one sense, a few dozen seats and a place to have a macchiato and a country-ham-on-baguette is a modest gesture. But quietly and convincingly, the cafe is already easing one of the arts center’s long-standing deficits. It has made the institution less opaque — metaphorically and physically.

One of the missed opportunities of the original design was failing to recognize the arts center’s most prominent spot, the corner of the structure at Broad and Spruce Streets, as an invitation for transparency. One part of the structure, the enormous pile of masonry at Broad and Spruce, was extended west with a ticketing booth that blocked the view into the plaza. At its front door, the Kimmel had little to signal what goes on inside.

That visual blockage has been cleared up, at least somewhat. The new cafe, called Garces Trading Company at Kimmel, does nothing to open up the Broad Street side of the arts center, and the awful black cube at the corner remains. But now, when you pass by on Spruce, you look through glass to see a warm social tableau inside — people eating, drinking, and talking. This legibility of activity within has never been possible in this prime spot. Cafe crowds, though modest so far, are bringing a level of steady activity not seen at the Kimmel in many years.

It’s no accident that arts centers everywhere are becoming more sensitive to atmosphere and user experience. Competition for leisure time is stiff, and getting people to leave their houses, a challenge. The New York Philharmonic has renovated and renamed its home in Lincoln Center, and now the lobby of David Geffen Hall features a 50-foot-long digital screen showing video art during the day and streamed performances of Philharmonic concerts live.

» READ MORE: Philly arts groups struggle to fill concert halls and theaters

The New York auditorium’s acoustics also got a makeover. The sound was crisper and more present than before in two concerts I heard there in January, and aficionados seem generally impressed.

But then there are those patrons who want to experience music more passively, sitting in the lobby sipping and chatting or scrolling social media as Beethoven streams digitally in the background.

“When you come in here at night, it’s vibrant, it’s electric, it’s filled with people. Some are going to the concert, some are going to the bar, some are going to watch it [on the digital wall],” says New York Philharmonic president and CEO Deborah Borda. “And to me, if you want to call it high culture or classical music — these are horrible names for it — it has been moved so far to the side of our social discourse that it’s almost disappearing.”

In other words, the Philharmonic, with a sweeping $550 million makeover, is attempting to meet listeners where they are.

It’s worth noting that New York has a great deal more public space than Philadelphia — in Lincoln Center plaza, for starters. The Kimmel, with its huge glass dome, functions as a kind of roomy indoor-outdoor gathering space that’s rare here, heightening the importance of making it succeed.

The symbolic value of the cafe as a space of access to all is important, especially now. The arts are still perceived by some as elitist, and arts attendance took a hit during the pandemic — as did the city’s image. On a recent morning, a man sat cradling his baby in one of the rocking chairs the Kimmel has set out near the cafe while soft recorded music played and the sun streamed in. It was the kind of a moment in the life of the city that doesn’t make it into headlines, yet here it was, the real stuff that makes a place human.

The Kimmel has pursued a series of renovations to both its public and private spaces on a rolling basis since opening, both as part of routine maintenance and in response to financial pressures and other factors.

The tale of the rooftop garden is a good metaphor for the push and pull of operating an arts center. It is a public space, but the institution is also expected to produce enough revenue to offset rental costs for its resident companies (a subject for another day).

The open-air garden atop the Perelman Theater once offered anyone who wanted it a great city view, an escape from the busy city. But the Kimmel, strapped for income, took down the trees and renovated the rooftop perch years ago so it could reap revenue from weddings and other events.

Gone was one of the city’s truly fun and surprising public spaces.

The Kimmel needs to evolve further to become the social hub the arts community urgently needs to reintroduce pandemic-weary patrons to the value of live, in-person performances. The New York Philharmonic renovation introduced fun to the place through the architecture, fabrics, and amenities.

The Kimmel cafe, designed by architect KieranTimberlake and Marguerite Rodgers Interior Design, points the center in the right direction. One promising element is the canopy of hydrangea-like lighting fixtures over the new seating area. They’re not fully operational (the bulbs are on order), but when they are, their changing colors promise to add a little whimsy to an often-humorless interior.

Fun and humor are useful bywords for considering the future of the Kimmel. The balcony over Broad Street is an underutilized amenity that could be awakened someday. The view into the arts center from the street should continue to be made more permeable where possible.

Which brings us to another failing in how the building reads to passersby. Previous designs for an orchestra hall on the site by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates included a great deal more attention to the outside of the building. In one version, the name of the Philadelphia Orchestra appeared in bold, stylized typeface and, in another, the Philadelphia architecture firm proposed quoting musical notation from Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata.

It’s too late for such an architecturally integrated solution to the building’s inability to express that it is about art. The letters on the curved front wall spelling out The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts are fine as far as they go, even if they are far more corporate than Venturi’s playful semiotics.

But until there’s something on the outside of the building signaling that one of the world’s great orchestras is inside, the Kimmel will be like a song that ends on an unresolved chord.