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Culture at the WTC

Daniel Liebeskind’s site plan for the World Trade Center includes placeholders for two cultural buildings. On Thursday, we finally found out what will go inside. The LMDC’s bake-off of 115 candidates concluded with four cultural institutions chosen:

  • The Joyce International Center for Dance, which would build a 900-1000 seat theater for a rotating series of international dance companies. The Joyce has smaller spaces in SoHo and Chelsea, which it would keep.
  • The Signature Theater, which would build three theaters of 99, 299, and 499 seats. Known for presenting seasons dedicated to a single playwright, the Signature would offer up to seven world premieres a year, and would also share the space with the TriBeCa Film Festival.
  • The Drawing Center, which would offer exhibits of international artists and also provide community education programs. It would move from its current home in SoHo to the WTC site.
  • The Freedom Center, the only one of the four that doesn’t currently exist anywhere, which would offer programs that “symbolize the indomitable spirit of the people of this land, the indomitable spirit of people from other lands, of the people of this city who may have been down but certainly not out.”

The New York City Opera, once considered the favorite to anchor the WTC’s cultural center, finds itself on the outside looking in. LMDC chairman John Whitehead had strongly pushed the opera, which he believed would be better able to attract the high-profile donations needed to fund the cultural buildings and the memorial. But the NYCO needed a 2,200-seat theater, and many doubted whether such a big space could be filled during the many months of the year when the opera isn’t in season. Rebuilding officials also questioned whether the opera was a logical fit for the kind of tourist traffic the site is likely to attract.

Although I’m an opera fan, I have to admit that the Joyce-Signature proposal is a more compelling use for the limited space. The four proposed theaters, ranging from 99 to 1000 seats, will create a new cultural center rivaling Lincoln Center, and I have to agree that it will be a lot easier to keep these theaters bustling all year round. The NYCO’s 2,200-seat opera house would have been dark more often than not.

I know little about the Drawing Center, but it sounds promising. The proposed Freedom Center makes me yawn. The last thing we need is pompous assurances of the value of freedom, particularly as the memorial planned for the site is likely to make much the same point. Perhaps the Center’s blue-ribbon sponsors can persuade me, but for now it sounds like an underwhelming concept.

The NYCO still wants to get out of Lincoln Center. Whitehead and City Councilmember Alan Gerson have pledged to find another home downtown, but I’m hard pressed to imagine where it could be. Lots that could accommodate a big-box opera house aren’t exactly plentiful, and the City Opera needs a magnate location — something that’s even more scarce.

In the meantime, the four selected cultural institutions have a tough road ahead. The two cultural buildings will cost hundreds of millions to construct, of which only a token sum will be available from the LMDC. None of the four has any track record of fundraising on this scale. Several prominent community business leaders have already turned down the job of fundraiser-in-chief. A six-month “feasibility study” is to be launched next month. Now it gets interesting!

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