The Kimmel Center's grand opening 10 years ago was a model of how not to do it.
The performing arts center was so far from finished in its opening week that at one concert musicians gamely wore hard hats. Verizon Hall's out-of-control air-conditioning led bejeweled patrons at the opening gala to joke about seeing indoor snow flurries. The acoustics inhabited the opposite end of the weather index: The Washington Post's critic called the hall "an acoustical Sahara."
"You ask, 'My gosh, why wasn't this done right the first time around?' " said CEO Anne Ewers earlier this year as she announced plans for extensive improvements.
Answer: You had to have been there.
Never was the Kimmel Center considered a $235 million turkey. In fact, its impact on the community - artistic and economic - can be assessed only by multiple measuring sticks.
"When I drive in [to the Avenue of the Arts] it's tougher to find parking. Which is great!" said Roy Kaiser, artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet. "The Kimmel Center has added so much to the vibrancy of the nightlife."
Established organizations such as Kaiser's ballet company, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia would be their formidable selves even if there were no Kimmel Center - though with a bit less elbow room. All three used to vie for the same dates at the Academy of Music; now, with the Kimmel Center and the two theaters it oversees - the Academy and the Merriam Theater - there's room to breathe.
For smaller resident groups, though, the Kimmel has been life-changing.
"As an artistic move, it was crucial for our orchestra," said Peter H. Gistelinck, executive director of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. Rehearsing in the same hall - the Kimmel's 651-seat Perelman Theater - as it performs in is key to the orchestra's cultivation of a high-quality sound.
Chamber opera was an I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it pipe dream for the Opera Company of Philadelphia 10 years ago; now, the company's "Aurora Series" at the Perelman has changed the company's provincial, standard-repertoire-at-the-Academy profile into something closer to the cutting edge, partly through Curtis Institute of Music collaborations on modern works for smaller audiences.
In addition to the resident companies, the Kimmel has presented more than 500 events on its own. In theory, other Philadelphia presenters could have brought in the jazz and world music concerts - but the 46 visiting orchestras (Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic) filled a gap created by the 1997 death of impresario Moe Septee.
Since its 2006 installation, the 7,000-pipe Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ has generated 36 events that weren't likely to have happened elsewhere - at least not with a video screen allowing viewers to monitor the instrument's operation.
The Kimmel's cost has been steep for everybody. Its skyline-changing 150-foot-high glass dome also housed a long-standing $26 million construction debt that wasn't retired until 2008. No wonder rents are higher than your basic church.
"The Kimmel Center, for us, was a huge financial commitment," said the Chamber Orchestra's Gistelinck, "but we've been rewarded for our artistic excellence with foundation support - William Penn and the Philadelphia Music Project, for example. I'm not so sure if that would've happened if we continued to play in churches."
The economic impact of the Kimmel's three-week Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts in April 2011 was estimated at $55.74 million, eclipsing optimistic pre-festival estimates of $31 million. Over the last decade, the center's annual economic impact is estimated at $350 million. CEO Ewers estimates that by 2021 it will have brought $3.5 billion into the local economy.
Any initial disappointment with the Kimmel requires perspective.
As much as Verizon Hall's acoustics were criticized, they were always considered superior to those of the Academy of Music.
No longer does the Pennsylvania Ballet have to open a new production on Memorial Day weekend because those were the only dates available. "You can't sell a ticket to anything on Memorial Day," said Kaiser. "Even I want to be out of town."
No longer does the company have to pay to break down its Nutcracker sets as often as eight times during the holiday run, to make room for other organizations.
Similarly, the Opera Company uses more sophisticated sets now because they can be built on stage and stay there until the run ends. Also, with the Kimmel Center operating the Academy of Music, income from touring Broadway shows at the older theater (119 have played there since 2003) has helped fund programs under the glass bubble down the street.
The Kimmel Center had its lingering gremlins. But even the Philadelphia Orchestra's unexpected shower from Verizon Hall's sprinkler system during a 2002 Rite of Spring rehearsal pales next to the danger and damage factor of midperformance evacuations at the Academy when, before its 1990s renovation, the 1857 hall actually began to crumble.
The biggest ongoing friction involves the Kimmel Center's rents, which start at $3,000 for Perelman Theater and $8,800 for Verizon Hall - as compared with some acoustically favorable churches that can be had for as little as $800. Resident companies have their own arrangements, and after the economic collapse of 2008, some began to teeter.
The Chamber Orchestra came closest to the brink, cutting its 2009-10 season by roughly 60 percent - well below the minimum of concerts called for by its Kimmel contract.
'Trying to survive'
"The minimum was seven programs, which came out to 14 concerts. We went down to three concert programs," said Gistelinck. "I wouldn't say it was a walk in the park. I said: 'I don't have the money. I just can't do it.' And they never chased us for the rent. Everybody was hurt, but nobody could ignore that the economy was going down and we were trying to survive."
Rent reduction is a current negotiating issue in the Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy. Already, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, which normally divides its 60-event season between Perelman and other venues, will have five events presented by the Kimmel Center, which means they will be rent-free. At the Academy, the Pennsylvania Ballet got a $225,000 reduction this season by surrendering exclusive use of the Academy Ballroom. "It's a big help," said executive director Michael Scolamiero, "even on an $11 million budget."
The Chamber Orchestra has been guaranteed flat rent rates for the next five years. The Opera Company of Philadelphia had a $250,000 reduction starting next season.
Competition for prime dates still "is not exactly clear sailing," said the Opera Company's general director, David Devan. As always, though, he finds a positive spin: With his first production pushed into early fall, he is calling it the kickoff for the city's cultural season. With his last production pushed into June, he grabs major artists who are free between spring opera commitments and their summer festival engagements.
With Kimmel improvements in the wind, companies will get more for their money. Last summer's $1.3 million acoustical renovation of Verizon Hall appears to be a success. And there's more to come. The Ewers plan for the next decade is extensive: "We will renovate Hamilton Gardens, open a plaza-level restaurant, renovate Innovation Studio . . . and continue to partner with community organizations and our resident companies in presenting collaborative arts programs."
And in 2013: The Philadelphia International Festival of the Art rises again.