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!
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 Akademie, Three 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.