By now, we know what it sounds like to be at the Kimmel Center. But what does it feel like? The heart still leaps up when you walk into the plaza beneath the great glass vault. What happens next, though — your level of ease and joy, whether you feel welcome — depends on when you happen to be there.
Philadelphia’s big arts center is now more than a decade-and-a-half-old and is once again reconsidering the visitor experience. In three town halls on Sunday and Monday, Kimmel leaders will ask the public to dream a bit about its latest acquisition, the Merriam Theater.
Whether or not a high-end residential tower gets built to house a new foyer to the historic theater, the Merriam project holds out great promise as just the kind of connective tissue that could help make the Kimmel feel more like the campus it is becoming — perhaps with street furniture and consistent graphics for its affiliated venues, the creation of a recognizable “branding” icon, or maybe a sidewalk cafe.
Making the history sing would be a good idea, too. Walking down the Avenue of the Arts now, you might miss a compelling story: the historic vapors of the 1857 Academy of Music at Locust Street, the 1918 Merriam mid-block, and the sound-sealed sanctums of the 21st-century Verizon and Perelman halls inside the Kimmel itself.
It makes enormous sense to draw out the history of all of these buildings, including the long-overlooked Merriam (née the Sam S. Shubert). Done with ambition, a permanent lobby exhibition in the Merriam could be a shrine to the dawn of American show business through the heyday of R&B. Where solid masonry now forms a wall between the theater and the street, a new Merriam lobby could be a beacon.
But the Kimmel has often hedged its bets on how much it really wants to let the public in. The arts center was originally conceived in part as a friendlier alternative to the formality of the Academy of Music. A more contemporary setting, with amenities to go with it, would be just the ticket to lower the psychological barrier on art forms sometimes perceived as elitist, planners said.
The fund-raising pitch for the Kimmel portrayed it as a kind of fifth square, suggesting the egalitarian access of Rittenhouse — an 18-hour-a-day public place where one could show up at any time and find something to do.
In this, the Kimmel had not met its potential.
When the Kimmel programs the plaza and streetscape, as it does with festivals and summer solstice parties, the vibe is superb. The arts center actually does quite a few free events throughout the year — concerts, organ demonstrations, programs for children.
But when there’s nothing going on there, as is the case many daylight hours during the week, it’s just you, a security guard or two, and the psychic tumbleweeds. To have Center City charged with workers, shoppers, and students as the Kimmel sleeps is an oddly squandered opportunity at a time when the arts are looking for all the friends they can get.
This last week perfectly illustrated the Kimmel’s split personality.
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon at 1, the vast lobby had a half-dozen people in it. The snack bar was closed. At that same moment, the Wilma Theater, catty-corner to the Kimmel, was buzzing. Its renovated lobby, which reopened a few weeks ago, has been given over to a coffee shop. It’s spacious, yet warm. Plate-glass windows bring the outside in and vice versa. Wednesday, the Wilma lobby was functioning as the city’s de facto arts coffee house — students on laptops, operaphiles chatting about what they had heard at O17, and a couple of arts types in one corner discussing a consulting project and a request for more information from a local philanthropist. The Kimmel’s lobby snack bar, on the other hand, is open only at times leading up to events and at intermission.
And yet, the Kimmel sometimes pulses with energy. Monday night for its first monthly free La Noche, the Kimmel turned the south end of the plaza into a nightclub with a band and a spread of margaritas and empanadas. About 300 chic young things ogled one another and danced.
As the Kimmel knows, if you program it right, no one is intimidated. I’ve never heard anyone who didn’t thrill to the red-velvet formality of the Academy of Music for Broadway, which the Kimmel presents there, or Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual Nutcracker. Making the Kimmel more public-facing, therefore, is a bricks-and-mortar question, but only up to a point.
It’s what you offer, the kind of message you send, and the price of admission.
The rooftop garden was conceived as a public space but is now devoted to rentals (and is not a garden), and the lobby shop is long gone. There is new art in the lobby, and that helps. Kimmel Center president Anne Ewers says she wants the public to feel ownership of the space. The center recently put a wireless signal in the lobby, is exploring the possibility of turning some spaces over to mixed-use options, and is looking to raise about $1 million a year to pay for free programming in the plaza.
Even around performance times, the Kimmel feels a little old-school — transactional at a time when the arts ethos (not to mention the retail one) increasingly recognizes a preference for novel experiences.
Emotion matters. I love the acoustics of chamber music in the Perelman Theater. I value the orchestral sound in Verizon Hall, and highly value it from certain seats. But I rarely walk through the lobby and feel embraced. The lights glare, and the temperature on the plaza is often chilly. It feels like something cold to get through on your way to somewhere warm – one of the two halls.
A lot hinges on the Kimmel’s ability to get this right. The public does not concern itself with where the Kimmel’s responsibilities end and those of the resident companies begin. If visitors leave feeling happy and valued, that translates into ticket sales and donations. Philanthropy is at its core an emotional response. If the Academy of Music is the mother of us all, wrapping us in her soft-focus gilded splendor, the Kimmel Center arrived on the scene like an emotionally distant step-parent: well-intentioned but sometimes cold and distracted. (Dear Kimmel Center: We love you. Do you love us?)
A newly renovated lobby has been part of the Kimmel’s master plan for several years, and some progress has been made. Additional proposed modifications include a less-fortresslike exterior at street level, an escalator, and restrooms on the plaza level. These changes look promising.
But whatever built solutions the Kimmel comes up with, it still matters how the spaces are operated, and how they feel.
For the Wilma, changing a dull lobby into a vibrant coffee shop, as well as other façade work, wasn’t cheap. With its name, though, the new space signals an intention all smart arts groups should heed. They call it Good Karma.
"Reimagining the Merriam"
The Kimmel Center's public discussions are Sunday, Sept. 24, at 11 and 4 p.m., and Monday, Sept. 25, at 6 p.m., at the Merriam, 250 S. Broad St.
Information: 215-893-1999 or www.kimmelcenter.org.