Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

To the drawing board, $300 million later

Good news. Philadelphia is getting a great orchestra hall with a superb acoustic. It will sit in the middle of the city as a sophisticated piece of urban design - a hive of arts activity so compelling it will form the city's newest and busiest public square.

Good news. Philadelphia is getting a great orchestra hall with a superb acoustic. It will sit in the middle of the city as a sophisticated piece of urban design - a hive of arts activity so compelling it will form the city's newest and busiest public square.

If you thought we already had conquered this particular piece of civic ambition - well, you'd be half right. The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts was sold as all this, and it's been up and running for more than six years.

But now its leaders tell us it's not what it should be. The sound in Verizon Hall could be better, they say, and the public-square aspect of the spaces wrapping around Verizon and the smaller Perelman Theater are not much used by the public except just before and just after performances.

That's quite an admission. Six and a half years after opening night, more than $300 million later, Philadelphia didn't get what it was promised.

At least the Kimmel's current leaders are now acknowledging failure, even if they carefully avoid the word. That's progress. For years after opening night, top Kimmel and orchestra officials sneered at critics who said Verizon's sound varied in quality from seat to seat, or that the sound in general didn't have enough presence or impact.

Anyone who wondered aloud why the plaza and rooftop garden were empty or closed was branded as that most pernicious of local characters: a "Negative Philadelphian." But two top acousticians and teams of urban-design professionals and students now have confirmed what much of the public already knew: We could have done better.

Now we will. The Kimmel is mulling options for renovating the ground level, and is working with the Philadelphia Orchestra on the best course for improving Verizon.

So where is the outrage? I might be in the minority, but it seems to me that for $300 million, Kimmel leaders should have gotten it right the first time around. Yet as these revelations have trickled out during the last few years, I have sensed surprisingly little indignation. Willard G. Rouse 3d, the late developer, really did a number on the vitality of civic discourse in this town. When he was raising money to build the center, he'd publicly humiliate anyone who poked a hole in any of his talking points - from asking why the price was spiraling out of control to questioning the ability of some already-frail resident companies to pay high rents.

When the Pew Charitable Trusts, the state and a gaggle of philanthropists came along a few weeks ago with a financial bailout of the center, the city maintained a Rousean silence. Maybe it's because anyone who was paying close attention already knew it was coming. No eyebrows were raised, as far as I can tell, at the most shocking aspect of the bailout - that Pew, the city's largest foundation, fond of citing set-in-stone criteria for its support, was violating its own past practice by funding a project whose capital campaign had closed years earlier. In other words, Pew has now funded debt.

Rebecca W. Rimel, Pew's leader and a longtime critic of the Kimmel's business plan, essentially pleaded the Bear Stearns defense: Yes, it's a mess, but it's such a big mess that normal rules don't apply. Too many arts groups depend on the Kimmel for their livelihood, she argued, to let it fail.

It's great that Pew put serious money and time into fixing the Kimmel's broken financial model. But what message does this send to arts groups contemplating risky projects? Can the Please Touch Museum expect that a group of civic leaders will come along and solve a financial crisis should they not be able to handle the tens of million of dollars in debt they are taking on to renovate a new home in Memorial Hall?

Is this a new paradigm for arts ambition in the city - to build problems too big to ignore?

I've often wondered whether Rouse, who took over the arts center project after decades of false starts, had calculated as much. Raising the money and then building wasn't working as a strategy, so he built it first, erecting a problem so conspicuous that the civic leadership would have to fund a solution.

As impressively brazen as the Rouse approach was, I doubt whether it was really necessary or, in the long term, wise. Rouse took over the orchestra-hall project convinced that all the arts needed was a little business acumen. The first four administrative leaders hired to run the arts center (in the years before it opened as the Kimmel) were lawyers and politicians. A better Kimmel Center would be with us today had an actual arts professional been president when key decisions were being made.

An artistic voice could have made the case that a smaller Verizon Hall would have meant a better sound. A president who was an arts professional could have thrown his or her weight behind the argument of Artec, Verizon's acoustical designer, that cutting costs in key materials in the hall's interior would undermine the sound.

An experienced arts-center leader would have seen that the small number of seats in Perelman would forever mean not being able to pay for the performances booked into it. When Janice C. Price took over as president - armed with wisdom gathered at Lincoln Center and other venues - she immediately saw that what the Kimmel needed instead of a 650-seat Perelman Theater was a 1,200-seat hall. It was too late, of course. That's one reason the Kimmel is interested in taking over management of the Merriam Theater from the University of the Arts - so that it can sell enough tickets in a hall to pay for the act on stage.

Water under the bridge, you might say. But it's possible to be honest about the past while still being an enthusiastic advocate for the future. Such duality is an asset, in fact - because strains of Rouse's business-does-while-the-arts-dither philosophy can still be heard at Broad and Spruce. Some Kimmel board members look at the center's visiting-orchestra series and wonder why it "loses money." Why shouldn't it bring in revenue, the way the Kimmel's Broadway series does?

That kind of thinking shows an ignorance of the fact that the arts have their own legitimate business model. Orchestras pay for themselves with a blend of ticket sales and philanthropy. That's the price of art. New Kimmel president Anne Ewers gets it. She's bringing in the incredibly expensive Vienna Philharmonic next season - a concert that won't nearly pay for itself even if every seat is filled - and is thrilled to be doing so.

She's not being financially reckless. The Kimmel's visiting-orchestra series is quite possibly the most important artistic statement it makes, and Ewers knows that it's her job to find a way to underwrite it.

She also understands that programming, which has been consistently smart under Mervon Mehta, is but one leg of this three-legged stool. The others are acoustics and urban vitality.

You wouldn't be a "Negative Philadelphian" if you yelled loudly that these other two legs have been wobbly for too long. In some quarters, that's called caring - from the kind of knowledgeable, engaged arts consumer the Kimmel will need to cultivate if it's going to really thrive someday.