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Kimmel Center appeals to younger set with new SEI Innovation Studio

When Anne Ewers pitched the idea, she got more than she bargained for. The president and CEO of the Kimmel Center, considered to be a mainstay for arts and culture on Philadelphia's bustling Avenue of the Arts, was having an interesting conversation with Al West, chairman and CEO of SEI, a financial services company in Oaks, Pa. West, a longtime art collector, it turns out, would become a catalyst for the Kimmel's newest project – the SEI Innovation Studio, a performance and fine arts space that is among the first of its kind in the country.

"It was a two-year conversation," says Ewers. "We want to attract a younger demographic." With a new entrance on Spruce Street, the space is readied to play host to a rotating installation of fine art (care of the West Collection) and studio space that will cultivate new talent and performance pieces with national and local talent at its helm. Designed by local architecture firm KieranTimberlake, the space is both a design feat and foundation for future arts collaborations in the city – complete with a column of light (the "pipe light," as the architects call it) that literally and symbolically connects the lobby of the Kimmel to the basement studio space in two phases of this ongoing project.

"When I sat down with Anne, this was one of the things she wanted to do – and it piqued my interest," says West. "SEI has a reputation for being innovative. Her Innovation Studio really paralleled with all of our interests as we use emerging art to break boundaries, as well."

The collector has donated works from his own collection to frame the space, which is set to host new jazz and theatre residencies. The 200-seat venue will also serve as a platform for both emerging and recognized talent from around the country – including composers Bobby Zankel and Francois Zayas, as well as choreographer Raphael Zavier and Pablo Bartista and his band The Mambo Syndicate. The new theatre will also include a residency by Obie Award winners Dael Orlandersmith and Deb Margolin. While SEI has been a main sponsor and leader for the project, a grant was also provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as well as the Hearst Foundation.

Public art installations, like the first from Jonathan Schipper ("The Slow, Inevitable Death of the American Muscle," a simulated collision of two muscle cars) will also draw main stage audiences into the studio space, both for free workshops and live performances.

"The reason for emerging art – it does get people thinking," says West, who admits that the fine art component forms a natural connection with the performance art that will be produced in the studio. Ewers and the Kimmel selected pieces from a collection of more than 2,500 – pieces that she says speak to the overall focus on fresh, emerging art.

"We are looking at more cutting-edge musical theatre and performance art," says Ewers. "We will develop and workshop artists – and select one of them to fully produce [a show] in the spring. We're also developing and creating new work involving the audience." Many of the workshops will be free to attend – something Ewers believes will provide added depth to the productions as they evolve. In many ways, the studio has been partly inspired by the success of PIFA, an annual arts event that has introduced hundreds of new works to newer, younger audiences.

Now, with Jose Garces as the Kimmel caterer and with the largest movie screen in the city, the Kimmel is also poised to become a destination for film openings and nightlife. "People can come, have drinks, eat and use the Wi-Fi," says Ewers. She has also invited feedback from major New York City arts and culture institutions to help shape the studio and its inevitable future.

West, who has a soft spot for art that is anything but predictable, summed it up like this: "It's very stimulating project – I like the fact that we're a little offbeat and going our own way."

He adds, "We're not the typical financial services firm."