Let’s embrace Rochester’s cultural identity

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Rochester’s colleges and universities graduate a number of musicians, second to Boston on a per capita basis. (Photo courtesy: Eastman School of Music)
(Homepage photo: Dancers at the Rochester Dance Theatre Company/the Village Photographer)

“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 MusicPegasus Early Music, the Rochester Oratorio SocietyGateways 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.

University of Rochester, Memorial Art Gallery’s 100th birthday celebration. ( Photo by Brandon Vick, University of Rochester)

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. 

The Strong Museum of Play, the Rochester Museum & Science Center and Seneca Park Zoo let families connect everyday experience to the universe around us and help build a sense of place. 

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:
    • Mental health agencies in Rochester are celebrating the 10thanniversary of the Reel Mind Film & Theater Series, which addresses the challenge of mental illness. 

Cultural branding

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.

16 thoughts on “Let’s embrace Rochester’s cultural identity

  1. This is a wonderful article I agree 100%. SYRACUSE has college basketball Buffalo has professional hockey and football Rochester should be known as the cultural center of the finger Lakes 👍

  2. I am sorry you felt the need to open with the Kodak cliche. I talk to people every day who come to Rochester for business and the Kodak trope never comes up anymore. It is quite evident that we have moved well past it, to the point where it is history. The good news is that a lot of these people love Rochester and are aware of how much we have going on from a cultural perspective. I used to hear complaints about the scarcity of restaurants downtown and need to walk through a wasteland to get to anything to do. I don’t hear those as much because we have the beginnings of a city center that is revitalized, as evidenced by more foot traffic. A vivid cultural experience includes all the things you persuasively lay out. But eating and going out are also entertainment options and we’ve seen an explosion is the growth of these options, all around those described here. Rochester is a fun place.

    • You’re mentioning people who are here for a reason, Martin. I’m pointing to the people who know nothing about Rochester but its history. We’ve yet to displace that Kodak connection with something else–and it is time that we make an effort to do so.

  3. Kent,
    Very interesting article and encouraging to read so many positives about the region. Some of the stats were surprising in regard to where our region stacks up in the arts! My only quibble is that I think it would have been appropriate to include some mention of RIT particularly in regard to the intersection of the arts and technology and what it means for the ecosystem in our region. And RIT is also a key venue at the Fringe Fest. But other than that, it was a good piece on the region.

    • I’m delighted that President Munson has embraced the arts & is promoting the arts & technology. And I’m aware that this isn’t new with his tenure–your comment highlights the fact that there is so much more going on than what I’ve addressed here. The colleges and universities–from Nazareth to Roberts–are all part of the tremendous asset base we have to offer the arts.

  4. I was a longtime Rochester resident, now living in Seattle. I think this is interesting positioning for the city, but you need to be able to attract people from other parts of the country to really build on an identity as a cultural mecca. Rochester is still devilishly hard to get to, and airfare is ridiculously expensive. I can fly to Europe for what it costs to come to Rochester. I visit every 2-3 years to see friends — in the summer, not the winter — but if not that and I had a choice of going to Austin for music or Rochester, Austin would win. Work to be done on making the city a reasonable destination.

  5. Nice to hear from you, Pam, and to know that you’re staying in touch with Rochester. The airfare problem is hard to deal with–I will note that airfares vary madly depending on the city pairs. As we’ve a daughter in Austin, we have first hand experience of wildly varying airfares depending on the competitive climate. And on the subject of Austin’s music–Austin’s claim to fame is as a “promoter” city, focused largely on popular music from touring musicians. Rochester’s deep advantage is in local musicians playing at worldclass levels–Grammy winners like Paul O’Dette and amazing Eastman performers.

  6. I was very disappointed to see not one mention of Writers & Books in your article about Rochester’s cultural scene. I seems an especial oversight given that the very next article in this week’s edition is an interview with the new Executive Director of Writers & Books, Alison Meyers. The organization is one of the largest community literary organizations in the country,
    has been in existence for close to 40 years, reaches over 20,000 people in our region each year with their programs serving both youth and adults, and has a national reputation. I hope next time an examination of our local cultural anchors is undertaken, Writers & Books will not once again be overlooked.

  7. I apologize for not including Writers & Books–if there’s any confirmation of my core message, the cultural density in Rochester, its the responses I’m receiving from significant institutions I omitted.

  8. Kent,
    Great insight and commentary. I can vouch for the points you make from my experience of assessing communities and regions across North America and Europe for business location investment and economic development. Growing up, raising a family and spending much of my early career in Rochester I didn’t fully comprehend how strong our cultural assets were relative to other metro areas. Even as deeply involved as I was in the arts and culture of Rochester as a communications professional at Kodak, RMSC and RIT and as an active volunteer leader in arts advocacy organizations, film festivals, the performing arts and public media, it was only after 30 years of living in Washington, the NY Metro area and England as a management consultant evaluating hundreds of communities for business investment and economic development that I fully appreciated the impressive concentration and accessibility of cultural assets in the Rochester area. While NYC/NJ and Washington, Los Angeles and other larger metros have immense cultural resources, accessing them is frustrated by limitations of time, distance, congestion, and often cost. Rochester’s concentration of universities and colleges is another unique part of its ecosystem. As a grad and former director at RIT , I strongly agree with Deborah Stendardi that President Munson’s vision of RIT being at the intersection of art, design and technology builds on the unique strengths of the university and the community.
    This is why my wife Patty and I are moving back to Rochester to be close to family, friends, and to be at the center of such a broad array of easily accessible cultural resources and natural and historic assets that will be enhanced by such developments as ROC – The Riverwalk!

  9. We need to employ the help of the Visitors Bureau to market us properly. Most Downstaters think of us as Alaskans. I even had someone ask me if we had hotels here!!!!! We do not get the publicity for the important things. When people do come here they are surprised at what we have.We need more government support , not even money but more importantly the push to show off Rochester’s assets.

  10. Kent — a well written call to action — with one glaring “missing piece” — that being the budget line in the City of Rochester devoted to allocations for the arts — currently it reads a big, whopping zero. Boston has a Commissioner for the Arts, for Heaven’s sake, as do many other major metropolitan areas — and they budget annually for support of the arts. Not us. Not Rochester.
    Thanks for the shout out re the Joseph Avenue Arts and Culture Alliance — striving to bring performing and visual arts to Rochester’s underserved youth and families as a component of area revitalization. For those monitoring the Northeast Quadrant, it’s working….

    • Joseph Ave is my “growing up” neighborhood. So glad to see cultural activities coming to this part of the city and such good cultural use being made of an old and special building on Joseph Ave. I like the article, but it is hard to cover all of these cultural assets in one piece. There are so many other cultural pieces that are not the “biggies” but contribute mightily to our depth. The thing that bugs me the most is that one would never know how deep the culture is here from arriving in our airport. It was a huge loss to remove world class art from the facility and replace it with things like a VERY underutilized “work zone”. Every other major airport I have flown into [and I have flown into many] showcase their arts-not US. This is an entry point for many and one would never know about all of this cultural depth on arrival to our city and region.

  11. One of the learnings we had from the Arts in the Loop Symposium is that we must learn how to identify with our artists not just the institutions. We have to show that we support our creatives not just the institutions. Thanks for the article.

  12. Part of Rochester’s cultural strength is our outstanding architecture and built environment heritage.

    Few American cities are ringed with villages as strong as the ten Monroe County villages surrounding Rochester. Four of these villages have repurposed their Erie Canal waterfronts as dynamic destinations.

    Many American cities once had grand boulevards like East Avenue. Only Saint Paul Minnesota and Rochester have retained theirs with much of the grandeur and architecture intact. The quality of Rochester’s historic housing stock is an extraordinary asset as preference for a walkable living environment continues to increase in popularity. Rochester has number of structures of national significance including the Broad Street aqueduct, the Boynton House, the First Unitarian Church, Wilson Commons, the Eastman House, the UR and RIT campuses, and the cobblestone buildings located throughout our region. The works of J Foster Warner, Claude Bragdon, and Jim Johnson are unique and extraordinarily sophisticated. The Landmark Society of Western New York is one of the oldest and most effective preservation advocacy groups in the nation.

  13. The extensive cultural assets in our area are certainly attractive to those who live and work here. As the leader of one of Rochester’s cultural gems, the Flower City Arts Center, I frequently hear new residents remarking on the many arts opportunities in our area. I echo the call for more direct support from city and county government and for a transparent and equitable process for distribution of resources. Government leaders cannot continue to claim “the city of the arts ” without support of the sector.

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