"We refer to the Rotunda as a gathering place for the promotion of arts and culture," said Gina Renzi, executive director of the Rotunda.
Originally a Christian Science church, the Rotunda was purchased in 1996 by the University of Pennsylvania as part of a larger initiative focused on transforming the 40th Street corridor into a cultural destination for the city. But, while permanent plans were debated, it was largely used as a rehearsal space for university groups displaced by the long-running renovation of the Perelman Quad and Houston Hall, their usual home.
That all changed in 1998 when then-student Andrew Zitcer, now Penn's cultural asset manager, enrolled in a course on university/community partnerships. He was assigned a paper investigating the idea of a jazz club in the area.
"At the time," Zitcer said, "this was no-man's land, and I explained to anyone who would listen that you can't just take a space and make it a jazz club, because jazz is really about history. However, I thought, why not for the 21st century think about an all-purpose space that can accommodate all the arts, all the genres and really achieve this goal of integrating communities."
Zitcer's paper on the idea found its way to Penn's Real Estate Department, which jumped on the idea and enlisted Zitcer to run the space, sidelining his plans to move to New York and work in the music industry. Seeking to inaugurate the space with an event that would exemplify the venue's expansive mission, he booked a hip-hop event and a jazz concert over two nights in April 1999.
"The jazz concert was nicely attended, 75 people clapping and behaving and appreciating jazz," he said, "and the hip-hop event was 250 people raising the roof and representing hip-hop. I thought both were greatly successful."
At the beginning, the Rotunda ran only on weekends, but gradually expanded to a seven-day schedule. Renzi came on in 2002, assuming many of Zitcer's former duties as he moved into his current position. With Penn's ownership, the rent-free space is in a unique position to offer all-ages, largely free events and still pay artists for their efforts.
The Rotunda's efforts have also generated enormous goodwill in the community and encouraged the growth of local culture. "We don't believe that someone who's in the audience can't also put on an event or perform on stage," Renzi said. "We've found that as the Rotunda grows, things have gotten better in this organic way, where people are self-selective and decide to make it better. People mold the space, as opposed to the other way around."