Rotunda In The News

From Rehearsal to Rotunda

"We refer to the Rotunda as a gathering place for the promotion of arts and culture," said Gina Renzi, executive director of the Rotunda.
Originally a Christian Science church, the Rotunda was purchased in 1996 by the University of Pennsylvania as part of a larger initiative focused on transforming the 40th Street corridor into a cultural destination for the city. But, while permanent plans were debated, it was largely used as a rehearsal space for university groups displaced by the long-running renovation of the Perelman Quad and Houston Hall, their usual home.
That all changed in 1998 when then-student Andrew Zitcer, now Penn's cultural asset manager, enrolled in a course on university/community partnerships. He was assigned a paper investigating the idea of a jazz club in the area.
"At the time," Zitcer said, "this was no-man's land, and I explained to anyone who would listen that you can't just take a space and make it a jazz club, because jazz is really about history. However, I thought, why not for the 21st century think about an all-purpose space that can accommodate all the arts, all the genres and really achieve this goal of integrating communities."
Zitcer's paper on the idea found its way to Penn's Real Estate Department, which jumped on the idea and enlisted Zitcer to run the space, sidelining his plans to move to New York and work in the music industry. Seeking to inaugurate the space with an event that would exemplify the venue's expansive mission, he booked a hip-hop event and a jazz concert over two nights in April 1999.
"The jazz concert was nicely attended, 75 people clapping and behaving and appreciating jazz," he said, "and the hip-hop event was 250 people raising the roof and representing hip-hop. I thought both were greatly successful."
At the beginning, the Rotunda ran only on weekends, but gradually expanded to a seven-day schedule. Renzi came on in 2002, assuming many of Zitcer's former duties as he moved into his current position. With Penn's ownership, the rent-free space is in a unique position to offer all-ages, largely free events and still pay artists for their efforts.
The Rotunda's efforts have also generated enormous goodwill in the community and encouraged the growth of local culture. "We don't believe that someone who's in the audience can't also put on an event or perform on stage," Renzi said. "We've found that as the Rotunda grows, things have gotten better in this organic way, where people are self-selective and decide to make it better. People mold the space, as opposed to the other way around."

- Shaun Brady

In its 10th year, Philly Zine Fest uses "HallowZine" theme


WHAT'S BLACK and white and read all over by Philadelphia's independent media? Philly Zine Fest, now in its 10th year, is an annual gathering of do-it-yourself publishers, artists and writers that showcases small self-published magazines.

Themed "HallowZine," this year's festival, Saturday at West Philly's Rotunda, offers the chance to flip through hundreds of these publications. There will also be costume, trivia and ghost-story contests, plus food, a DJ and live broadcasts on Drexel's WKDU (91.7-FM) radio station.

"Zines can be about anything and can inspire a lot of different feelings," said Sarah Rose, one of the festival's organizers. The most powerful zines make readers laugh and think about big issues at the same time, she said.

Rose is the creator of a zine called Tazewell's Favorite Eccentric, which addresses addiction, abuse and poverty. Her other zines include Worries, about anxiety, and Dangerous Damsels, about feminist fairy tales.

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Rotunda a hub of Penn's civic engagement with Philadelphia

 By Avi Grunfeld

A century-old former church called the Rotunda stands as a symbol of Penn’s civic engagement with West Philadelphia.

The Rotunda — located at 4014 Walnut St. — now houses a community-based arts initiative that started in 1998 with the goal of serving as a bridge to bring together Penn and West Philadelphia.

Program director Gina Renzi hosts between three to six events per week ranging from live music, film, art or after-school programs for local students. It is one of many elements of Penn’s focus on improving its surrounding neighborhood.

But Penn was not always the neighbor it is today.

“If Benjamin Franklin came back to Penn 30 years ago, he would be very upset with Penn’s relationship with the community,” Urban Studies Professor and Associate Vice President and Director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships Ira Harkavy said.

Since the 1980s, though, Penn has begun a new chapter of working with the community — a chapter Harkavy believes is on display today at the Rotunda.

A history of civic engagement
In 1985, Harkavy and former Netter Center Senior Fellow Lee Benson, who died last February, started to teach a seminar on urban universities and community relationships. The course was co-taught with former Penn President Sheldon Hackney for the first few years.

From Hackney’s involvement in this seminar to former Penn President Judith Rodin’s campus expansion initiatives to current Penn President Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact, civic engagement with West Philadelphia started to get more and more attention.

“Civic engagement is central to what a Penn education and what Penn as a university is all about,” Gutmann said.

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Rotunda Reveries

by Jeffrey Barg

For the first few months, the question was always: Will anybody show  up? While the organizers—mostly Penn students and their friends—milled  about the Rotunda’s dark back room, just two or three attendees sitting  on the carpet in the middle of the floor could make the space seem  bigger and emptier than if no one were in it. Inevitably, a few more  would trickle in and the artists would eventually take the stage (or the  floor or the balcony or wherever the muse struck them), but early on,  those dark couple of hours were always a question.

The Rotunda Birthday Celebration and Fundraisers: Fri., Sept.  25-Sun., Sept. 27. $3-$10. Rotunda,4014 Walnut St.

Now, a decade later, the Rotunda has played host to more than 2,000  events and a quarter of a million people. When attendees pack it in for  this weekend’s 10th birthday bash, there’s more guarantee of a crowd,  and fewer people will need to ask where the entrance is (on the side in  the back, not through the row of arched double doors in front). But  minus the apprehension, the vibe they walk into will be much the same.

“What’s amazing about it is how little has changed,” says Andrew  Zitcer, who launched the project out of an undergraduate Penn class in  the fall of ’98. Lights went up on the first show a year later. “We set  up an architecture to empower community artists and didn’t set up many  filters—and that hasn’t changed.”

Zitcer, working with like-minded Penn students at the time, began  what was then the Foundation Community Arts Initiative with the goal of  creating a space where university students and West Philly residents  could come together through the arts—a fairly lofty ideal coming as it  did at the end of the ’90s, a decade marked by hostile town-gown  relations for Penn.

“We always started from the premise that it would be a community  gathering place for the promotion of arts and culture,” says Zitcer, now  31. “The values and the work were key, as was the sense of access and  celebration. That was a really powerful thing for us to create on 40th  Street when 40th Street was just being reimagined.”

The area around 40th and Walnut, now one of the city’s major retail  and entertainment corridors, looked very different at the time. There  was no Bridge Cinema, no Distrito, no Metropolitan Bakery, no Marathon  Grill, no Fresh Grocer. What was there was the majestic, empty old  building that was formerly the First Church of Christ Scientist.

“There’s a lot of energy around here now,” says Gina Renzi, 31, the  Rotunda’s director. “I don’t want to sound conceited for the Rotunda,  but I really think we’re part of it because we bring something different  every day, which means we’re bringing different people to the area.”

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