“Hey, where are you from?” “Rochester, New York” “Oh, that’s Kodak, right? Didn’t they go bankrupt?”
Sound familiar? Like a Siamese twin, Rochester’s brand was joined to Kodak’s for generations. Tech savvy and instantly recognizable, it spoke of smart people making things that enrich our daily lives. Photocopies and contact lenses fit right in. It was a great brand—positive, distinctive and authentic.
Today, it is our cultural identity that sets Rochester apart. Economic developers talk of “ecosystems,” a recognition that institutions, concentrations of knowledge, and focused leadership spur economic vitality and growth. There is no stronger example in Rochester than the ecosystem that nurtures creative expression. Let’s embrace it.
For me, it’s about music, like hearing the Eastman school’s Ying Quartet in lovely Kilbourn Hall or singing great choral works as a member of the Eastman Rochester Chorus, often with our marvelous Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. In just a few weeks, our downtown will be jammed with jazz fans, cruising from venue to venue to hear 1,500 artists from 20 countries. For others, Rochester is about theater, dance, visual arts or our museums.
Embedded in Rochester’s DNA, the breadth and depth of Rochester’s cultural sector spans city and suburb and captures all ages, races and ethnicities.
And what an ecosystem! The Eastman School of Music, Rochester Philharmonic, the Hochstein School of Music & Dance and the college and university performing arts departments share a movable feast of musicians, supporting, in turn, the Society for Chamber Music, Pegasus Early Music, the Rochester Oratorio Society, Gateways Music Festival, the Opera Guild and countless others.
Garth Fagan Dance has inspired companies like PUSH Physical Theatre and Futurpointe Dance. Rochester City Ballet offers a window into a more formal dance world while Geva Theatre Center anchors a vibrant theater scene that includes Blackfriars, Downstairs Cabaret and RAPA. The Rochester Broadway Theatre League brings Broadway to Rochester and promotes a wide range of cultural events at the Auditorium Theatre.
The visual arts are inspired by the George Eastman Museum, the Memorial Art Gallery and WXXI’s Little Theatre, and includes the Rochester Contemporary Art Center plus world-renowned artists and their collaborators, such as Albert Paley and the late Wendell Castle.
Ecosystems rely on integrators—here it is WXXI, serving as herald, historian, and ambassador. As examples, the nation was introduced to Albert Paley’s magnificent installation along New York City’s Park Avenue by WXXI’s magnificent series. Recently, WXXI joined with other public media in New York State to help us understand and address the opioid crisis.
Rochester’s cultural density is its most distinct asset and the source of its magnetic attraction. Twenty years after film sales peaked worldwide, it is time for Rochester to refocus its image away from the much-diminished Eastman Kodak. Our community’s cultural density is its distinguishing feature. Rooted in a remarkable concentration of higher education institutions and nurtured by a rich philanthropic history—much of it a Kodak legacy—Rochester’s cultural life rivals that of any major city and surpasses that of nearly all its peers.
The arts bloom in Rochester’s fertile cultural soil: Think Fringe and Jazz festivals
A healthy ecosystem is constantly evolving and expanding, spurring new beginnings and collaborations. Dozens of new and small arts groups are supported by established artists or institutions. The Joseph Avenue Arts and Cultural Alliance’s partners includes the RPO, MAG, the Eastman School, the Children’s Theatre Company and the Rochester Latino Theater Company.
Consider the meteoric success of the Rochester Fringe Festival. Incorporated only in 2012, Rochester’s Fringe now ranks in the top five nationally by attendance (an estimated 78,000 in 2018) and is the largest multidisciplinary arts festival in New York State. While taking nothing away from the University of Rochester’s early leadership and skilled current management, the growth of Rochester’s Fringe would be impossible had it not been planted in the fertile cultural soil of this unique community. The Rochester Fringe Festival provides a venue for a dazzling array of local and visiting artists. The 2018 Fringe was extended to 11 days and offered 550 shows.
Although Rochester’s Fringe relies on artists—actors, musicians and dancers—affiliated with Rochester’s major cultural institutions, it also demonstrates the significance of arts and culture to local residents. The Fringe Festival could not be successful without a receptive and supportive Rochester audience.
The 2018 Rochester International Jazz Festival brought 1,500 artists from 20 nations to Rochester and sold tickets to patrons from 25 states. It, too, is nurtured by local artists and loyal, enthusiastic crowds.
Both the Jazz and Fringe festivals rely on a variety of downtown music venues from the elegance of the Eastman’s Kodak and Kilbourn halls and the Lyric Theatre to more contemporary spaces like Eastman’s Hatch Hall and the Geva Theatre Center to the beauty of Christ Church and Reformation Lutheran.
Deeply embedded in the community
Unlike private firms, community engagement is embedded in the mission of Rochester’s arts and cultural institutions. The education of the community’s children looms large. In 2017, the major arts and cultural organizations employed the equivalent of more than 60 full-time employees in their education departments, serving more than 50,000 K-12 students through self-guided field trips, nearly 30,000 through interpreter-led programs and over 25,000 students through presented programs, concerts or special events.
The Rochester Museum and Science Center’s programs reports an estimated 160,000 contact hours with K-12 children. Tens of thousands of children and their teachers are served by the wide-ranging programs of the Strong. Geva Theater Centre invested another 43,000 hours in our children. In addition to its digital broadcast channel (WXXI-TV 21.1/cable 1277) and its livestream WXXI Kids 24/7, its Homework Hotline serves children across the state.
The Seneca Park Zoo Society makes a vital contribution to the environmental education of children. The Memorial Art Gallery and George Eastman Museum are pillars of K-12 education in the visual arts, as Garth Fagan Dance is in its domain. The musical education of Rochester’s children is supported at every level by the Eastman School of Music, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hochstein School of Music and Dance.
How can Rochester compete? Promote Rochester’s remarkable cultural density
As places like New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles become increasingly expensive and crowded, smaller cities with more affordable housing, and easy public transportation options, and walkable neighborhoods are becoming more attractive to those frustrated with big-city living.
A simple appeal to “quality of life” is insufficient, however, as dozens of cities can make similar claims. Rochester’s cultural density, however, sets it apart. Consider:
- Among the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas:
- Rochester is second only to Nashville in the number of employed musicians per capita; (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
- Rochester’s colleges and universities graduate a disproportionate number of musicians, second to Boston on a per capita basis (CGR tabulation from 2015-16 academic year data published by the U.S. Department of Education IPEDS dataset and the Census Bureau);
- Rochester’s higher ed sector is second only to Orlando in visual and performing arts degrees per capita.
- The Eastman School of Music is routinely ranked in the top five worldwide
- The Sibley Music Library is the largest academic music library in the world.
- The Eastman Organ Department is the largest in the Western Hemisphere
- Faculty have earned 43 Grammy awards and 103 nominations since 1994; the Pulitzer Prize in Music 9 times; plus numerous other prestigious prizes
- The Strong Museum of Play is one of the three largest interactive/living history museums in the nation. Annual attendance has exceeded 500,000 for more than a decade with visitors from all 50 states and many foreign countries.
- The Strong is home to the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, the National Toy Hall of Fame (with 2 billion impressions in Web and print news stories annually), the World Video Game Hall of Fame (1.5 billion media impressions), the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play and the American Journal of Play.
- Travel reviews routinely rank the Strong among the nation’s and world’s best museums: “10 Best Museums in U.S.” –USA Today; “10 Best U.S. Museums for Kids” –Conde Nast; “one of best museums for children in the world” –Viator Travel Blog; “#1 family travel destination in U.S.” –Family Fun.
- Geva Theatre Center is the largest nonprofit theater company in New York outside New York City and the most attended regional theater in the Northeast.
- 28 world premieres since 1997
- 475 performances or events annually
- 11,500 season subscribers
- 160,000 annual attendance
- Ticket sales account for 60 percent of producing costs, which demonstrates a strong level of grassroots community support
- Garth Fagan Dance is an internationally acclaimed contemporary American dance company that has toured 6 continents, 27 countries, and 400 cities. Garth Fagan Dance has bustling school of dance with an enrollment of 400 student and a community-based resource of broad and growing influence, with Educational programs, performances, and activities that enrich and nourish communities and engage audiences.
- The Rochester Museum & Science Center is an iconic arts and cultural institution that is strengthening Rochester’s innovative economy and helping to build our community’s technical workforce through a unique combination of science and history including the most comprehensive collection of authentic objects documenting the natural and cultural heritage of Western New York, 900-acre environmental education center and nature preserve in Naples, NY, plus the only large planetarium, the Strasenburgh Planetarium, with a day’s drive in any direction
- WXXI’s broad and diverse reach knits the cultural sector together through
- Four television channels plus public access City 12
- Six radio stations, including collaborations with the University of Rochester and Hobart & William Smith Colleges, plus Reachout Radio
- The Little Theatre and its five screens contribute to Rochester’s deep and rich legacy of film.
- The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra has been committed to enriching and inspiring our community through the art of music since its founding in 1922. The RPO’s Principal Conductor for Education and Community Engagement position (The Louise and Henry Epstein Family Chair) was the first of its kind in the country. The RPO’s world-class reputation and creative programming led to a coveted invitation to perform as part of Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music festival; this same world-class reputation has made the RPO a destination for some of the world’s most sought after guest artists, including Yo-Yo Ma, Yefim Bronfman, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Joshua Bell.
- Spurred by the presence of the George Eastman Museum,film’s abiding impact on the community is reflected in Rochester’s many motion picture festivals:
- The Rochester International Film Festival at the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theater is the world’s longest running short film festival.
- The High Falls Film Festival celebrates the contributions of women to film.
- The ImageOut Film Festival presents LGBTQ+ arts and cultural experiences through film.
- JCC Ames Amzalak Rochester International Jewish Film Festival has focused on Jewish identity, history and culture since 2001.
- Mental health agencies in Rochester are celebrating the 10thanniversary of the Reel Mind Film & Theater Series, which addresses the challenge of mental illness.
The magnetic pull of the creative sector serves to retain culture consumers (many of whom are employees of the region’s firms), attract cultural tourists and provide a reason for new investment. Cities that distinguish themselves from others based on strong or profitable identities, cultures, or arts and crafts, gain a competitive advantage as “destination cities” for cultural tourism and business attraction.
Consider places like Austin and Nashville. Now known as the “Live Music Capital” of the world and “Music City” respectively, these were sleepy, mid-sized cities 30 years ago. Each of these cities made long-term and deliberate commitments to nurturing and supporting their authentic and unique arts and cultural communities – from arts and cultural organizations to individual artists to community festivals to creative businesses.
Claim the title
With Rochester’s old “smugtown” affect comes a complacency about our public image. It is time to tell our story and claim the title as one of the nation’s leading cultural centers. Whether the pull comes from Garth Fagan Dance, the Eastman School, The Strong, or another standout institution, Rochester is magnetic.