The relationship between form and function has long been at the heart of groundbreaking design, and when it came to the concept for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, design architect Barton Meyers had a very specific goal in mind for both.
He drew a sketch on a napkin. The idea was to make the facility open, inviting and inclusive to reflect the Central Florida community. His clients were thrilled.
“We wanted to create a place where people would be able to check their differences at the door and just come in and enjoy an experience together,” said Kathy Ramsberger, president and CEO of the downtown Orlando venue.
From that initial sketch sprung a performing arts center that is still driven by the goal of excellence through diversity and inclusion — a goal that has led to unpredicted levels of growth. In the past year alone, the Dr. Phillips Center has hosted more than 430 performances and more than 650,000 guests, blowing out of the water its initial agreement with the city of Orlando to have 150 curtains each year for the first few years.
Since 2014, the growth has been remarkable not only in attendance numbers, but also in the community’s response to the center’s educational initiatives and other programs. The center has been able to provide an estimated $8 million in value in community support so far for education and outreach programs, scholarships, rental off-set support to community arts groups, student and veteran discounted tickets and other offerings.
The arts center’s vision has been named “Arts for Every Life” and has guided the Dr. Phillips Center as it continues to surpass even the loftiest expectations.
Diversity and Opportunity
Even before the arts center was built, there were numerous conversations in the community about what would entice people to use it. Those conversations that happened years ago are still influencing the operation’s choices, Ramsberger said. Those choices include not only the quality of the programming, but also the breadth of it, with 14 genres ranging from comedy shows to a speaker series to Broadway performances.
Partnerships within the community have been invaluable in creating opportunity for more representation. Since opening, the center has hosted performances in 16 different languages other than English — a fact that represents the true diversity of the community. This year, working with 60 community arts groups, the center has been able to host 140 productions showcasing local community performances from groups including Opera Orlando, Cultural Fusion, Encore and Unity Players.
Wellness for Every Life
Bringing Arts for Every Life has also meant connecting with individuals and groups in enriching ways. The Dr. Phillips Center has been working with at-risk youth, children with autism and the aging population to instill artistic, movement and expression-filled classes and programs into their lives to enhance their well-being.
“We believe that if people have an outlet for expression in their lives, their quality of life will be improved,” Ramsberger explained of the curriculum, which emphasizes performing arts training. “We encourage movement and exercise, exposure to culture, and just doing things that are emotional and connecting and celebratory.”
The classes and programs, led by expert instructors, integrate aspects of performing arts to encourage engagement, interaction, connection, information retention and overall quality of life.
In a move that transcends its vision of Arts for Every Life, the Dr. Phillips Center is also working on a Wellness for Every Life program. The arts center and partner Florida Hospital are engaging in research and clinical studies with dementia patients and their caregivers to determine the impacts of the arts on their wellness.
Growing a New Generation
Since its founding, the Dr. Phillips Center has allocated significant resources to its expanding education programs. From its own curriculum, to initiatives and camps with scholarships available, these programs seek to embrace the mission of bringing the fundamentals, history and value of the performing arts to everyone, regardless of age or background.
The arts center’s own programs include classes that range from musical theater to ballet to piano. Offered all year long and at varying levels of experience, these classes are taught by experts in their fields, often including residencies by visiting artists who can bring unique and new insights to students and the arts center itself.
One of the most recent self-created programs, 6th & Jazz, gathered all sixth-graders from Orange and Osceola counties to the arts center over the course of a week to learn about the history of jazz and its impact during the civil rights era, with live performances from the Dr. Phillips Center’s own jazz orchestra serving as stand-ins for textbooks. It proved so successful that the program will be expanding to 7th & Jazz this year.
Partnerships have led to even more opportunities. A collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center — the only program of its kind —allows the Dr. Phillips Center a chance to infuse those original programs into the local community.
One of those programs is the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Regional Festival. The annual event, which is open to the public, offers high school bands the opportunity to play a song, followed by a workshop and an awards ceremony for the musicians.
A partnership with the Disney Theatrical Group culminates in a program called Disney Musicals in Schools, which offers assistance to elementary school theater programs, especially those with higher numbers of children from low-income families that otherwise might not experience theater. The center sends expert theater representatives into as many as five area schools to spend four months working with the students to put on a production and grow their theater and arts program. Then the students are invited to perform their production at the Dr. Phillips Center, where they see their hard work come alive.
While much of the growth for the Dr. Phillips Center is in the realm of outreach and initiatives, some of it is quite literal. In 2020, the arts center plans to unveil its newest addition, which is under construction: Steinmetz Hall and The Green Room. Steinmetz Hall is described as “one of the most acoustically perfect performance halls in the world.”
The momentum the arts center has gained is likely to keep building along with the venue itself, which has recently been recognized with the prestigious 2018 international venue excellence award. The Dr. Phillips Center is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that operates and manages the city-owned venue.
The center has raised nearly $176 million in private philanthropy that funds its mission and programs. That fact is a source of pride for the people behind the center’s operations. “Great communities are led by philanthropy, and philanthropy leads us,” Ramsberger said.
While operations and programs are funded by private contributions, funding for capital and construction comes from both private and public support from the governments of Orlando, Orange County, Winter Park and Florida. Through the arts center’s fundraising, it has been able to contribute more than $150 million back to the project, as well as contribute annually to the facility’s maintenance and capital improvements.
As the Dr. Phillips Center moves forward, most likely to places that can’t even be imagined yet, it will continue to operate by its vision of Arts for Every Life. The team at the Dr. Phillips Center and the community that supports the mission share an understanding that with increased exposure to the arts, people are more likely to feel those connections, sometimes found in unexpected places, that make art so transcendent — as well as a firm belief that everyone deserves the chance to feel that spark of creativity. In a city so vibrant, there seems to be no better place for the Dr. Phillips Center to thrive.