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November 13, 2023 Arts Biz

Yale’s $163M Schwarzman Center brings new dynamic to New Haven’s arts, culture scene

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO | LOTTA STUDIO Corrine Bailey Rae in September took the stage for a free public concert in the Commons, the Schwarzman Center’s largest venue.

Yale University’s $163 million Schwarzman Center is not only a new hub for students, but adds to downtown New Haven’s arts, entertainment and social scene, officials said.

“I don’t think there’s a space like this, not just in Connecticut, but anywhere,” said the center’s Executive Director Rachel Fine.

Rachel Fine

The center is named for billionaire Blackstone founder and 1969 alum Stephen Schwarzman, who donated $162.8 million for the project.

The 123,000-square-foot renovation and expansion, which debuted in late 2021, transformed the historic Commons dining hall and three floors of the adjacent Memorial Hall, at the corner of College and Grove streets, into performance, exhibition, meeting, dining and gathering spaces that aim to be a central hub of student life.

The Schwarzman Center also hosts performances and cultural events in the historic 2,650-seat Woolsey Hall.

The 120-year-old Commons — think Harry Potter’s Hogwarts — accommodates up to 4,000 students during lunchtime Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. But with its new flexible seating, it’s also being used for a wider menu of cultural events.

Multiple screens and new sound, lighting, audio and acoustic systems allow it to host live performances, screenings and other events for students and the general public.

With its 66-foot-high ceiling, and ability to seat 700, “think of it as one giant black box theater,” said Maurice L. Harris, the center’s director of marketing and communications.

The Schwarzman Center’s Memorial Hall section includes a variety of performance, exhibition, gallery, meeting, cafe, dance and gathering spaces, also for students and the public.

The Underground, located on the center’s lower level, is used for casual dining and entertainment, and includes a proscenium stage.

On the third floor is the Dome, a white, circular — and domed — flexible-seating performance space that can seat up to 100 people.

On the second floor, just above the complex’s rotunda, is The Presidents’ Room, used for dinners and receptions, and now performances, too.

What’s ahead

After its first full year of operation, Fine and the center’s staff are now preparing for a new year of programming. They are also developing a long-term plan that will define the center’s “distinctive voice in everything we’re doing in arts and cultural programming,” Fine said.

Earlier this year, Paul McCartney was part of the programming. In January, opera star Renée Fleming will perform in a free recital, forum and master class.

Recent and upcoming events include:

  • An exclusive preview of the civil rights movie “Rustin,” with the film’s producer, Bruce Cohen.
  • Long Wharf Theatre’s presentation, in partnership with the Keen Co., of Joan Didion’s solo show, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” starring Kathleen Chalfant.
  • Sonic artist Ash Fire’s “ANIMAL: A Listening Gym,” an interactive sound art installation.
  • And John Adams’ “El Niño: Nativity Reconsidered,” by the American Modern Opera Co.

The Schwarzman Center is not anchored to a traditional nine-month season, Fine said. Programming is planned by semester, every three or so months, allowing for greater flexibility and freshness.

Because of its flexible seating configurations, the Schwarzman Center also doesn’t have to worry about always having to fill a fixed-seating capacity.

“It’s less about the spaces, but the intent on how to utilize them in surprising ways,” said Associate Artistic Director Jennifer Harrison Newman.

Fine, who previously served as the executive director of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in California, said she sees the Schwarzman Center giving “reason, space and opportunities to break down the silos on campus — and in the community — in [the center’s] multidisciplinary presentations.”

She welcomes proposals and partnerships from the university and community.

So far, the center has teamed up with the Shubert Theatre, International Festival of Arts & Ideas, and the Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School.

Partnership talks have also begun with Long Wharf Theatre, which is now an itinerant company after exiting its longtime home last year.

“We’re trying to create a ‘commons’ in the true sense of the word,” she said.

Adriane Jefferson, the city’s director of arts, culture and tourism, said the Schwarzman Center is adding to efforts to “establish New Haven as the cultural capital of the state, with an emphasis on cultural equity and growing the entertainment industry. Their free programming model will make it accessible to the community at large and to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Financing the complex

But how does an arts center sustain itself with free admission and significant expenses?

Schwarzman provided $150 million for the construction project and is continuing to provide operating support.

The Schwarzman Center’s annual programming budget is $4 million.

So far, the center does not have an endowment, but Fine expects that may change with the arrival of a new development director in January.

Fine notes that audience dynamics are changing in a post-pandemic environment, in which many not-for-profit performing arts groups are now struggling.

“The way people are engaging with the arts is what I’m thinking about all the time,” said Fine. “I don’t think people’s engagement with the arts has left. It’s just different. It’s really about catering to how different people want to engage in different ways, and we who run arts organizations have not caught up with that. Our spaces here give us the opportunity to do that.”

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