As the snow begins to melt and the days get a little bit longer, the changing of the season means more to The Rotunda Director Gina Renzi than the promise of sandals and shedding winter coats.
“I always get excited for March,” says Renzi, who has dedicated her time to arts programming at The Rotunda since 2000, when she first became a volunteer. “People are ready to leave winter behind and jump into spring, and so they want to get out and go to more events.”
And Renzi’s responsibility—among juggling other creative endeavors—is to curate and strategically book those events.
“Event programming here is really artist activism. It’s advocacy, it’s education—it’s all of those things,” Renzi says. “It’s about trying to figure out how to get people excited about the arts, and funding them properly, while also giving to the community. The Rotunda is what people make of it.”
The core of The Rotunda was founded in 1998 with the formation of the Foundation Community Arts Initiative, in response to ideas put forth in a Penn Urban Studies seminar. The Foundation, housed in a 1911 building that originally served as a First Church of Christ, Scientist, was primarily organized by a group of Penn students and West Philly residents, including Renzi. In 2002, the Foundation realized the need for a full-time director. It was then that the Foundation and its physical space both became known as The Rotunda, and Renzi was hired to officially serve at its helm.
The Current recently visited Renzi in The Rotunda’s historic building, where she opened up about what it takes to organize events, the trials and triumphs of working with artists, and the value arts programming brings to the communities it calls home.
Q: What made you want to apply for the director position?
A: I really love this place. I had been volunteering here, and I almost thought, if I don’t get this I don’t know what I’ll do because [The Rotunda] is really like no other place, and it functions in this unique way that is just really open to everyone, and we strive to make sure the events are inclusive. We get some programming money from the University to pay performers so that events can be free. I don’t see that happening in most other places. A lot of my counterparts at other theaters and venues have to worry about things like how they are going to pay to keep the lights on, and we don’t. We can focus on the programming, on community relations, and on talking to anyone who walks through the door. And I just couldn’t imagine being somewhere else.
Q: How long have you been interested in the arts and arts programming?
A: I have always been interested in the arts. I’m not a performer; I’m definitely more of a behind-the-scenes kind of person. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who can be at times kind of shy, and so I never really wanted to be on the stage, but I was always really interested in how people produced events. Growing up, I was always more of a visual artist. I was always drawing and painting. I wound up for two years at Drexel studying architecture, and I decided I didn’t want to be an architect—I just really liked buildings. So then I studied art history at Temple, and that’s where my interest was really cemented in the arts, at least visual arts. Then at the same time, I was working at the Electric Factory and the TLA. I had a cousin who worked at those venues and knew I was organized and friendly and flexible, so I did all sorts of things: bookkeeping, I helped the house managers and production managers. I learned so much, and that’s really where my interest in concert production, and audience management and development came from because I saw it every single day. At the same time, I saw the arts and performance treated as a commodity, and I liked the performance aspect, but I didn’t really like the corporate aspect. I wanted something that was more homegrown in a way, more grassroots. And so I was in my 20s and I fell in with a bunch of artists, and it just sort of happened organically from there.
Q: What do you do as Director of The Rotunda?
A: I run a couple of programs. The main one is The Rotunda, which is an arts and culture community venue, and so I am the person responsible for the oversight of everything that happens here. I communicate to the University how we’re using the building, I communicate with the property management, I do all the staffing, and I am, at times, the person at the soundboard or running lighting. I maintain a volunteer advisory board, I have interns who work with me, and I do all of the booking. The Rotunda is not just like a banquet hall where we hand over a key to performers. We figure out what they want to accomplish from the event; do they want to try to foster the community in some way that they haven’t done before to try to get a new audience? What is it that they need? Are they performers who want to be event curators? So whatever it is, I counsel them through that and connect them with resources, and I also manage our programming money and figure out how we’re going to use that. I’m also at least here for half of the events, and so I’m actually helping people produce those events, so it’s my day job and a night job. [Laughs.]
Q: And you have other responsibilities, correct?
A: The 40th Street Artist-in-Residence Program is sort of my other main gig. That is a program that’s housed in two buildings at 40th and Chestnut, both owned by Penn, and we use those buildings for studios for visual artists. [The artists] have to be West Philly-associated or -affiliated, and we have a small gallery space in one of those buildings, as well. I actually work very closely with the artists, we have five or six residents every year, and so I communicate with at least one artist every day. The artists get free studio space for one year, and in exchange for that, they do community outreach work. So they teach a class, run a workshop, whatever it is. I figure out what their skills are, where their interests are, and then hook them up with partner sites. In the summer, I work with the University City District to run the 40th Street Summer Series, which is basically an extension of The Rotunda programming, but outdoors, in a much larger space. We use the 40th Street Field next to the Walnut West Library. We bring acts that are too big for [indoors] that want to perform for a free event and be at an event where people can bring their families and kids.
Q: What’s the most challenging part of managing The Rotunda?
A: I want to do everything at once, and I can’t. It takes a while for me to admit to myself that I have to delegate. That is a challenge—figuring out how to balance everything. When you’re dealing with a lot of people who are very new to what they’re doing, you can’t just say, ‘OK, you’re booked, and we’ll see you on that date.’ You really have to help people walk through a process, and it can be very challenging because you have to assess their needs and assess their skills at an event. You have to be a mind reader, you have to be a counselor—there’s just a lot of stuff you have to do. The majority of people I interact with are really amazing and so if anything, I have to pull myself back and say, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do as much as you want to do,’ and ultimately that’s the right decision because they’re coming to us with their own ideas. So it can be challenging trying to make sure you’re engaged but you’re not absorbed completely, which can be hard for me because I live in the neighborhood.
Q: What about the most rewarding part?
A: [Laughs.] It’s all of those same things—the challenges are what’s rewarding [and] when I feel like we’ve really helped somebody out. Of course, we want to see audiences come to events, and that will always be rewarding in itself, but I have to say that working individually with artists and performers is incredibly rewarding because they’re usually coming from situations where they’re being asked to donate their time. They’re just as professional as any of us, yet they’re usually not getting paid to do what they’re doing, so we find ways here to pay them for what they do while increasing their visibility. With the Artists-in-Residence Program, I see it every single day. The simple fact that these people have a free studio space is more than you could ever imagine for them. So that kind of stuff is incredible when you can actually be there on the ground. The rewarding part is being connected and getting to know these people by name and in many cases know their families—and that’s what a community space should be.
Q: In your opinion, why is arts programming beneficial to communities?
A: It’s a quality of life issue. [Arts venues] make the immediate area become more lively. When there are more people coming to an area it winds up creating a destination. So we’re in this 40th Street corridor, where there are also restaurants and shops. People have traditionally used the arts to bring people into an area that you know they want to make more vibrant and create more foot traffic. Arts venues are also really important for people as a social outlet. It’s important for artists, and it’s important for the young people that we wind up working with because there’s an education component that to me is absolutely critical. You can’t have a safe thriving interesting neighborhood without it.
Q: What about The Rotunda in particular—what is its neighborhood mission?
A: So the verbiage has sort of changed over the years but the core mission is the same, which is essentially to increase access. We’re increasing the audience’s access to art, and you’re increasing the artists’ access to audiences, and you increase artists’ access to each other. That’s basically it.