UPDATE: Kauffman Center debut: KC's $414 million arts center open

Thursday, September 15, 2011 | 6:07 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Kansas City's new, long-awaited $414 million performing arts center, a hefty steel and concrete chrysalis-like structure on the edge of downtown, opens Friday night amid high hopes for its role as a performance site — and incubator for the arts, education and more.

The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts "will create a cultural cornerstone for Kansas City and will demonstrate to the region and beyond what a state-of-the-art performing arts center this really is," said Julia Irene Kauffman, chairman of the board of the center and whose mother, Muriel Kauffman, envisioned creating a performing arts center for Kansas City.

Muriel Kauffman, who died in 1995, was the widow of Kansas City businessman and benefactor Ewing Kauffman, whose pharmaceutical fortune and philanthropy also funded other Kansas City undertakings, including sports teams and educational foundations.

"Kansas City can, and must, cultivate and educate its own artists and instill a love of the arts in everyone in our community, and we are solidly committed to this endeavor," Julia Kauffman said Thursday during a media tour of the 285,000-square-foot center.

After years of delays fueled by various concerns over everything from the location, to costs and a reeling economy, construction began in early 2007 on the center, which is located on a hill overlooking a broad swath of the city's Crossroads Arts District.

The center, which has two performance halls, the 1,800-seat Muriel Kauffman Theatre for theater and dance performances, and the 1,600-seat Helzberg Hall for symphonies, was financed largely by private donations, including more than $100 million from the Kauffmans.

The center will host performances by the Kansas City Symphony, the Kansas City Ballet and the Lyric Opera and will also draw national performance groups.

The 2011 performance season, which begins in October, includes singer Mavis Staples, comedian Lily Tomlin, performance artist Laurie Anderson and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Tickets for several performances have already sold out, said Jane Chu, CEO and president of the center.

Placido Domingo, Itzhak Perlman and Diana Krall headline this weekend's grand opening events, which also sold out long ago. More than 40 local groups will be on hand for a public open house Sunday that has also drawn more than 16,000 online RSVP's.

The Kauffman Center combines two arching-over walls of glass and steel cables and was designed by Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, whose other projects have included the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem.

Safdie, who was in Kansas City for the opening, said Thursday the center's two-hall design has the potential to bring divergent members of the community together.

"I'm thinking of the day where there will be a concert that brings lots of people with jeans on one hall, and there's a black tie event with lots of long dresses in the other, and the intermission overlaps just enough that they'll mix up in the common bars and lounges," he said.

The center also has an educational program aimed at exposing school children to the arts. The center estimates it will host about 15,000 students for ballet, symphony and opera performances with its Open Doors Transportation Fund.

"My ambition is to get every child in the metropolitan area bussed in somehow to see a performance ... once a year at least," Kauffman said.

Chu, who has also been working on a doctoral degree from Indiana University that looks at the influence of performing arts centers on urban revitalization, said the center will be more than a site to experience the arts.

"From the get-go this building is really designed to be a community center of sorts," Chu said.

But she said she does not see the Kauffman Center as "an economic driver that is a cash cow."

"I would dispute that myth completely," she said. "But if it is all about a catalyst, and there are spillover dollars ... there's something here."

Kauffman said she would be getting a pat on the back for a job well done if her parents were still alive.

"We're on budget," she said. "Daddy'd be happy, and mother would be thrilled. ... She loved to dance, so she'd be dancing."

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