Phillips Center celebrates its 20th anniversary


The University of Florida Performing Arts is celebrating the Phillips Center's 20th anniversary with the first of two commemorative seasons. The curtain opened with “Cats” on Jan. 6, 1992.

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Published: Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 6:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 6:26 p.m.

As usual, they had been rehearsing for about six weeks, give or take. Some were nervous when they took the stage that night — just the typical pre-show jitters. They were dancers performing "Swan Lake," a ballet that has become a classic in the number of times it has been revised and revisited and remembered by audiences around the world.

But there was something special about that January 1992 performance. It was the first time local professional company Dance Alive National Ballet performed at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts — known then as the Center of the Performing Arts — and one of the first shows of the venue's inaugural season, artistic director Kim Tuttle recalls.

Now, it's been 20 years since The Swan Queen first took her bow on a stage on which she could spread her wings — literally. The 46-feet deep stage meant sprawling set design — two 30-feet by 60-feet backdrops — and the use of more than 400 light fixtures.

"'Validated' is a good word to use," Tuttle says of the feeling that night. Today, "You have no limits. If you want to be creative, you can do whatever you want to do."

As the University of Florida Performing Arts celebrates the Phillips Center's 20th anniversary with the first of two commemorative seasons, that's a concept that has driven the center performance after performance — from worldly orchestras to fresh-from-Broadway shows and every duo and dance troupe in between — since the curtain opened with Cats on Jan. 6, 1992.

"[The Phillips Center] provides a cultural anchor that allows the other artistic expressions in our community to be strengthened," says Michael Blachly, the director of the University of Florida Performing Arts. "I would say that anything you are likely to see in a major city, such as New York, Chicago or Boston, you can see in Gainesville."

Blachly points to the population. In a college town with just more than 120,000 people, according to 2010 Census data, in a state where larger cities like Miami and Orlando are seen as the cultural flagships, the 1,700-seat Phillips Center has put Gainesville on the radar, he says.

"Artists are aware of Gainesville. Artists are aware of the strong audiences that exist in Gainesville," says Blachly, who began serving as director in 2000, the same year the center was renamed after retired Jacksonville surgeon Dr. Curtis M. Phillips made a $2.1 million endowment, matched by the state.

Since the building opened, about 800 artists and acts have graced the stage, he says. It's changed the face of entertainment by offering locals "an opportunity to experience cultural richness."

Those 800 include performances as diverse as Ray Charles, Riverdance, author David Sedaris, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

And then there's the local art acts, like Dance Alive and the Alachua County Youth Orchestra, comprised of students in grades 6 to 12 who put on about three shows a year at the Phillips Center.

For the younger kids in the orchestra, the ones who haven't taken the stage before, "it's just awe-inspiring and amazing," says Gary Langford, the music director and conductor of the orchestra.

But they get used to it, he says. Unlike 20 years ago, many of the aspiring musicians haven't played anywhere else. But they'll appreciate it one day, he says, when "they get out of here and go some place else and continue to play in a small church or auditorium." A place without the frills of dressing rooms and balcony seating and opera boxes.

Donald McGlothlin remembers when those frills were just part of a plan. Two decades later, McGlothlin, who served as the executive director of the center for its first 10 years after overseeing its completion, refers to the building by the nickname it was given with a sly nod to its locale: the miracle on 34th Street.

A planning committee set several goals when the Phillips Center first opened, he says. Members wanted to create a performing arts center that was nationally and internationally recognized for its quality and ability to attract top talent, as well as its original creative and collaborative work.

Gainesville, at the time, wasn't lacking in artistic sophistication, he's quick to clarify, and shows were hosted at UF's University Auditorium — even the campus Florida Gymnasium. But when the center was completed, "these seeds they had planted that were struggling to live just blossomed."

Its value spans beyond its cultural contribution.

The local economy feels a boost from the Phillips Center, especially from out-of-town visitors. According to the 2010-2011 season annual report, more than 6,100 patrons from outside Alachua County attended events at the Phillips Center during the season (about 25 percent of the total audience). The Gainesville/Alachua County Visitors Bureau, also known as VisitGainesville, estimates that a daytime visitor spends about $55 per day, which totals $339,000 for the season.

According to the report, a visitor who stays overnight spends about $180, which generated about $144,000 last season for the 800-plus artists who stayed overnight in town.

According to McGlothlin, the building budget was originally $10 million when Santa Fe College spearheaded the project, and UF provided an addition $2 million when it took the reins, he says.

The center was originally intended to open on the Santa Fe campus, but management responsibility was assigned to UF's College of Fine arts so it could become a part of the Cultural Complex (which now also includes the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art and the Florida Museum of Natural History). For a total initial cost of $12 million dollars, McGlothlin calls the Phillips Center a "tremendous value."

In the future, he hopes the center continues to function as a symbol of Gainesville's thriving art community and artistic taste, he says. But for now, the Phillips Center's impact spans beyond the week-by-week performances that continue to draw crowds of college students and families, theater newcomers and music aficionados alike.

"It's changed how we see ourselves," McGlothlin says, "and how others see us."

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