Changes are ahead for Philadelphia’s performing arts culture.
“I call it Avenue of the Arts 2.0,” said David Yager, the University of the Arts new president. Yager is starting his tenure as the head of the art school by unloading the Merriam Theater, the century-old, 1,800 seat venue on Broad Street that UArts has owned since 1972.
UArts only uses the theater for student productions eight weeks out of the year. Even then it’s too large. The rest of the year it is managed and booked by the Kimmel Center.
“It doesn’t make logical sense – 8 weeks of the year for a facility that doesn’t satisfy our students’ needs – to own it,” said Yager.
UArts will sell the theater to the Kimmel Center for $11 million, of which $5 million came from a grant by the William Penn Foundation.
The Kimmel Center owns three theaters inside its own building on Broad Street, and has a long-term, 99-year lease agreement on the Academy of the Arts, owned by the Philadelphia Orchestra. By gaining control of the Merriam, the Kimmel Center is able to clearly distinguish an arts campus along Broad Street.
“The campus between the Kimmel Center’s three theaters, the Merriam theater and Academy of Music: that’s close to 9000 seats a night,” said Kimmel president and CEO Ann Ewers. “It makes us the second largest performing arts center in the country [behind New York’s Lincoln Center]. Pretty amazing.”
Ewers has been fishing for a donor to buy the naming rights to the Kimmel Center’s campus of theaters, something she hopes to leverage with the Merriam firmly in hand. The name of the Merriam, itself, is also up for grabs.
Apart from the real estate deal, which they hope to complete in a few weeks, the Kimmel and UArts have launched a partnership to bring their two, neighboring organizations closer together. Both institutions share a deep interest in jazz, and the Kimmel Center has just opened an exhibition of artwork by UArts students and faculty.
“Certainly, our art departments are excited about exhibiting in the Kimmel. It’s the first time,” said Yager. “Our music faculty and students are interested in doing performances there. We’re also talking about their Innovation Lab, and how to help invigorate and vitalize it for performance work. I think there’s a lot of real, real interesting possibilities.”
Yager has his own development vision for the Avenue of the Arts. Like the Kimmel Center, UArts holds a number of buildings up and down Broad Street, but it has no real center. Yager would like to build new student housing with food services and meeting areas to tie the urban campus together.
As for the Merriam, the first item of business will be renovation. Ewers says the theater, built in 1918, is so outdated some artists have refused to perform there. She plans to have an architectural study done as soon as the deed is in hand.
Correction: a previous version of this article misstaded the contribution of the William Penn Foundation. The Foundation granted $5 million toward the purchase of the Merriam Theater.