Does Philadelphia need yet another concert hall? The city, after all, has spent the last two or three decades carving out new arts spaces — the Clef Club, Arts Bank, Rock Hall at Temple University, FringeArts' renovated pumping station on Delaware Avenue, not to mention the Kimmel Center.
Ready or not, in about a year, yet another will come: a compact new performance space at the foot of North Broad Street.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has started work on a 277-seat hall that, in addition to being a venue for PAFA's own activities, will host concerts, lectures, and other events by PAFA's partner arts groups — radio station WURD and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society are two — and will be offered as a rental space to others seeking a small state-of-the-art venue.
The below-ground multidisciplinary arts center in the Hamilton Building, the newer of PAFA's two buildings at Broad and Cherry Streets, is part of a $6.4 million, 15,000-square-foot subterranean project that also creates a new gallery for exhibiting student work and storage for post-World War II paintings.
Demolition of the current basement is just starting. Construction is expected to begin around Dec. 1, with an opening about a year later, in January 2019 or before.
The museum and school completed a study of its spaces and determined it could use a new hall like this one 150 days a year for its lectures and symposia.
"We felt that we'd use it half the year, and that still leaves quite a few days for use by partner organizations," said PAFA president and CEO David R. Brigham. "Our thought was that we needed it and that there was a need in the community."
Will PAFA's new small hall tip the city's arts venue inventory into over-supply? Probably not. Arts producers know that what they present lives or dies by the alchemy of a variety of exacting factors, and PAFA's new hall does not quite duplicate a mix that exists anywhere else.
"I think that it would be terrific in principle, if the rental price was right," said Vera Wilson, founder of Astral Artists, which presents dozens of concerts in and around Philadelphia each year, and which is not one of PAFA's partner groups. "The size is perfect for a small recital hall, much needed in this city; 300 might have been even better. Of course, it will depend on the sound quality, and the economics of rental realities."
PAFA's partner groups will be given five dates per year at no cost. Rents for other groups have not yet been set.
Acoustics are something of an unknown. Subway rumble there is minimal, according to several observers, but the ceiling height of the space could limit acoustic quality. Brigham said an 80-speaker sound system would adjust reverberation and bring the same sound to every listener. "It is less about amplification, more about controlling the sound experience," he said. "It sounds very natural." (Performers can also choose to skip electronic amplification.)
Outside groups will bring programming likely to include music, dance, and theater.
Concerts there would mean returning to an old neighborhood for listeners at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, one of PAFA's partners, which once brought a steady supply of Schubert and Beethoven to the nearby Convention Center. The group plans to present three concerts in the new PAFA space in spring 2019, to "evaluate how the experience went for artists and audience members alike, and then determine how many additional concerts we will plan for future seasons," said PCMS artistic director Miles Cohen, adding that it could be up to five per season.
PCMS sees the space as a chance to present lesser-known artists who might not fill the Kimmel's 650-seat Perelman Theater.
A segment of the Chamber Music Society liked the Convention Center location and easy access to the beef pho and salt-baked squid of Chinatown. "I think PAFA would rekindle the affection of certain audience members for that part of town," said Cohen. Plus, as was the case with PCMS concerts at the (now demolished) auditorium at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "we will attract people who love PAFA and would do anything at PAFA and not often go elsewhere."
Audiences do develop an affinity for a venue over time. And some venues – such as the religious houses around Rittenhouse Square – may offer lower rents, but also iffier acoustics and less of a sense of occasion. Temple and Curtis have fine halls, but they tend to be booked with school business.
Museums tend to succeed as concert venues because of the added value of ambiance, and the message they send about being in the greater context of art.
PAFA hopes to send one message in particular. Sara Lomax-Reese, president and CEO of WURD Radio and a PAFA trustee, said the radio station was thinking of the space as a conduit between the station's African American constituents and the museum.
"We've already done a number of collaborations, to be a connector, to break down perceived barriers that exist between this iconic art institution and the community," she said.
Along with a Norman Lewis exhibition, the two groups in 2015 held a talk with artists and art historians on the state of black art in America that was broadcast live on WURD. The intersection of art, activism, and social justice is a natural place to look for ideas on how to program the space, said Lomax-Reese (who is also a member of the board of managers of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the company that operates the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.)
"We're sitting in the heart of North Philly basically. So how do we make sure that there is a tangible invitation and connection with the immediate community that is right at our doorstep?"
Transforming the basement into a new performing arts space is part of a larger renovation underway at both of PAFA's Broad Street buildings just north of City Hall. In the last year, two skylights at the east end of the Frank Furness-designed building were taken apart and reconstructed, and a handicap-accessible entrance was created on the west end. Storage space has been expanded by 80 percent. Building systems were upgraded. A sunny new glassed-in exhibition box for student work was created in the Hamilton Building lobby facing Broad Street.
Fund-raising is far along – $19.3 million has been pledged or paid toward the $25 million goal. More work is planned, including a sign project, LED lighting to highlight features of the Furness building exterior, new paving, and replacing two floors of tinted plate-glass windows with clear ones on the front of the Hamilton Building.