Is Rochester’s cultural identity competitive beyond upstate?

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The Jazz Festival, led by a private-sector musician and businessperson, has become a signature event in Rochester.
(Jazz Fest 2019/Photo by Tomas Flint)

I agree with Kent Gardner’s June 6 post (“Let’s embrace Rochester’s cultural identity”) asserting that Rochester has excellent, diverse, and accessible cultural offerings. The Rochester International Jazz Festival is so wonderful that we have returned for the full nine days every year since moving from Rochester to North Carolina in 2008!

Paul Wetenhall

I will offer observations about Kent’s cultural center proposal incorporating my Charlotte experience and my economic development awareness of Austin and Nashville. 

First, be realistic about Rochester’s cultural strengths and recognize that fast-growing metros such as Charlotte have added substantial cultural assets in parallel to rapidly growing population and wealth. Although the cultural mix is different here, the Charlotte scene is at least as interesting and compelling as Rochester’s. (For example, in June so far we have attended Bach AkademieThree Bone Theater ’s “Oslo” and Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s jazz night.)

Second, the cultural contribution to the rapid rise of Austin and Nashville is intertwined with the impact of strong academic institutions (University of Texas and Vanderbilt University) and dynamic entrepreneurial successes (Dell Computer and HCA, among others). In the case of Austin, the “live music capital of the world” became nationally visible because it was broadly popular and showcased through artists such as Willie Nelson and media such as Austin City Limits. Nashville, of course, is well known for country music and associated national artists as well as broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry. A robust cultural scene is not enough; to achieve national prominence, it must be fueled by the community’s wealth creation and creative talent attraction.

Third, cultural breadth is great for residents but is difficult to communicate to the broader world. Kent’s comprehensive article includes dozens of organizations and the comments have reminded us of even more. Although each offering is distinctive in its own way, almost all are matched in other communities. Larger organizations, such as the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Rochester Museum & Science Center, have counterparts of similar quality in Charlotte and other metros. The many smaller organizations are less likely to have direct matches, but comparable creativity exists in Charlotte, Nashville, Austin, and similar metros. I think it is difficult to convert cultural breadth into an advantage easily grasped nationally.

Fourth,“culture” needs to be understood broadly. A comment associated with Kent’s article introduces the important recognition of metro Rochester’s architectural richness. Charleston, S.C., is booming, in part, because economic stagnation in the decades following the Civil War left its built environment largely intact and ready for preservation and new uses. Rochester, and all of Upstate New York, may find that decades of minimal growth offer a similar opportunity. Charleston’s fantastic restaurants, by the way, demonstrate how food can contribute to a local cultural scene. 

What do these observations suggest about a strategy for leveraging Rochester’s cultural strengths?

The Eastman School of Music must be a centerpiece. It is well-known across multiple musical genres and attracts global creative talent to Rochester. The George Eastman Museum is distinctive and is a compelling destination for people interested in photography and movies. Rochester’s history enables clear ownership of this cultural sector. The Strong Museum, through its focus on play, has developed into a destination attraction. It is worth noting that these pillars were all enabled by entrepreneurial fortunes, not primarily by government action.

The Jazz Festival, led by a private-sector musician and businessperson, is clearly a signature event and similar festivals are focal points for communities from Newport to New Orleans. Geva Theatre Center and Garth Fagan Dance are wonderful assets but probably serve supporting roles. Our Rochester friends are excited about the Fringe Festival, but it may be too soon to know if it can become nationally attractive.

Finally, it is worth noting what is not relevant. For a few decades, Rochester has agonized over a possible new venue for traveling Broadway shows. While that may bring in visitors from Batavia and Syracuse, it is irrelevant to establishing Rochester as a cultural center of national reputation. Traveling Broadway shows are already everywhere (Charlotte’s upcoming season has nine shows).

As an avid consumer of cultural events in Rochester, Charlotte, and elsewhere, I endorse your vision that Rochester claim its place as a leading cultural center. However, avoid the Smugtown legacy of assuming that Rochester is dramatically better than similar metros. Recognize the few cultural assets that can be nationally distinctive. Accomplish the creative effort needed to identify the new, innovative combination that can define Rochester’s sustainable, compelling cultural story in a competitive North American landscape. 

Importantly, let the examples of George Eastman and the Jazz Festival’s private risk-taking founders be your guide. The private sector must lead and fund the effort with the much-abused Upstate New York taxpayer in a modest, supporting role. 

See you on Jazz Street!

Paul Wetenhall has been an entrepreneur, corporate manager, university lecturer, and leader of entrepreneurial support organizations in Rochester and Charlotte, and currently resides in Davidson, N.C. Before he left the Rochester area, he was president of High Tech Rochester, now NextCorps.

5 thoughts on “Is Rochester’s cultural identity competitive beyond upstate?

  1. We (Western New York, specifically, Rochester) sit in the very cradle of the American Craft movement. Our history includes Shakers, Stickley, Roycroft, Alfred School of Ceramics, and RIT’s School of American Crafts. And yet !…we have done next to nothing to capitalize on this natural circumstance. From experience, I can tell you that people fight to see a first-rate art furniture exhibit. I suspect that the major quilt exhibit a few years ago at Memorial Art Gallery came close to setting record attendance. If I hear one more person proclaim us to be somehow “leaders in art and culture,” I think I’ll scream. We are not because we have never made a unified effort to cut through the barriers built around fifedoms of all the self-interested organizations. Until that happens, we will keep dragging ourselves around other cities and wondering “how did they do that?”

  2. I agree with part of Paul’s viewpoint. Western culture is losing its sense of place everywhere, including here. We should focus on leveraging what is unique about Rochester, whether it be for tourism or simply to enhance our own quality of life. Why does Rochester exist, and why does it exist where it is, and why has it been built the way it has? Perhaps more importantly, why should it continue to exist? The answer to this last question could do a lot to guide us towards smarter development planning of all kinds. Where I am not in agreement is Paul’s emphasis (axe to grind?) about private versus public development. Development happens in all sorts of ways, and no entity has all the answers. Other assets here include the river and the Erie canal, neither of which should be made available for some private developer’s interests, no matter how civically inspired.

    • Contrary Mary (CM) raises deep questions about Rochester’s existence that are best left to readers who are currently residents.

      CM introduces the important topic of public versus private development. I agree that there are certainly many assets (the modern Erie canal, the areas great park system) that our best managed in the public interest. It is worth noting that these can facilitate good private development. For instance, the Canal makes nearby land attractive for residential development.

      And, lest we forget, the river’s hydropower was a key reason why Rochester exist at this location.

      That comment suggests that I may have an “axe to grind.” A sharp axe is safer and more effective…and New York needs trimming.

      As a former Rochesterian observing New York substantial out-migration, I will always encourage upstate New York to work for smaller, less intrusive, less costly government to improve the region’s economic competitiveness. A strong cultural community will only be sustained through a healthy, wealth-producing private sector.

      That’s it for my axe grinding!

  3. Unfortunately, the Eastman school is not taking that leadership role you propose, in spite of offering numerous free concerts and music-related events. For example, there is no student participation in the Jazz Fest, because they are done and gone when it takes place. The cultural mecca Kent described is largely a fallacy, because it can only be accurately described in terms of how wide the participation is across the community. We fail utterly at that. After three days of the Jazz Fest this year, I have been in multiple jazz pass concerts in which the audience was exclusively white and older. This in a city with a 40% black and Latino population. If we want to be an exceptional destination city, this has to change.
    There is a wild card here: Climate Change. Rochester may very well become a refuge city because of our location, which combines abundant fresh water with a climate that is less susceptible to extreme weather events (unlike Charlotte or Austin, for example).

    • Martin’s post adds useful perspectives about Eastman and the local scene.

      For readers who are not familiar with jazz fest (RIJF), I will offer an additional perspective as a member of the “white and older” attendees Martin references. The jazz pass attracts people committed to nine (or three) days of intensive (5:30-11:00) performances. It naturally skews older since we are more likely to have the time. Jazz pass attendees are a few thousand of the 100,000+ RIJF attendees. Festival crowds are diverse (age, race/ethnic, etc.) for the broad variety of free and ticketed performances.

      And, jazz performers are diverse. One evening we saw a band led by a blonde Canadian woman with a Frenchman pianist and African-American bassist and drummer. We followed that with a white Englishman organist, a Brooklyn-based klezmer band, and the African-American Campbell Family Band performing in the Pentecostal Holiness tradition.

      RIJF is a great model for collaboration among diverse people connected through their individual talents and common artistic interest. Could this be the seed of the Big Idea for bringing Rochester’s cultural assets to broader visibility?

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