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Performing Arts

It's About Constructing a Cultural Legacy

With a new hall debuting and more arts programs, the Skirball Center is evolving along with its mission.

February 11, 2001|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Uri D. Herscher, president of the Skirball Cultural Center, doesn't like to talk about buildings.

"You want to talk about the building? I will talk about the building. I am hesitant to talk about the building," he begins, during a conversation at the Skirball, nestled in the Sepulveda Pass just north of the Getty Center. "Because as much as I appreciate gorgeous envelopes, as time goes on, they seem to matter less and less. It's the contents within the buildings."

This all-sides-considered prologue is typical of Herscher, who always manages to create the aura of a democratic round-table discussion even when he's the only one talking. Trained as a rabbi and scholar, he builds communities, not structures of concrete and steel.

Herscher has been not talking about buildings ever since the $73-million Skirball Cultural Center opened in the spring of 1996 with a stated mission to "interpret the Jewish experience, to nurture Jewish identity and strengthen American society."

In the course of the center's five years, Herscher has changed that statement to read: "The Skirball Center is dedicated to exploring connections between four thousand years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of America's democratic ideals." On a printed copy, the word "democratic" is written in by hand--another indication that the Skirball's mission continues to evolve.

Still--even if he doesn't like to talk about it--the evolution of the Skirball includes a new building: the $45-million Ahmanson Hall, a multipurpose space dedicated to the memory of civic and cultural leader Franklin D. Murphy.

Ahmanson Hall was scheduled to open its doors to the public for the first time Saturday with a dance piece performed by Liz Lerman's Maryland-based Dance Exchange, exploring the Buddhist, Christian and Jewish communities and what each group finds itself celebrating at the beginning of the millennium. The piece, which is scheduled to be performed again tonight, is part of Lerman's nationwide "Hallelujah Project." Representatives of local Buddhist temples, Jewish temples and Christian churches are participating in the show.

Completed in January, Ahmanson Hall, named for the Ahmanson Foundation, which supported the hall and other projects at the center, represents Phase II of construction on the center's 15-acre campus, whose buildings are designed by architect Moshe Safdie. The 20,000-square-foot, dome-ceilinged hall houses an auditorium that can be transformed from an open space for a standing crowd of up to 1,200, to a tiered-seating theater for up to 515. The lower level also contains a business center and multipurpose rooms that can serve as dressing rooms, rehearsal areas or meeting rooms.

State-of-the-art sound and audiovisual systems are permanently installed, so the auditorium will not have to be rigged with imported technical equipment for performances.

Ahmanson Hall is not the last building Herscher is going to have to talk about. Phase III is the Winnick American Family Heritage Hall, which will be used to expand the activities of the children's Discovery Center in the main building. Estimated to cost $34 million, the facility is scheduled to open its doors in 2003. Winnick Hall will also have an outdoor amphitheater for children's performances.

Children are important to the Skirball. Of the more than 2 million visitors to the center since it opened, 200,000 have been children, most of them from Los Angeles public schools. The center is closed to other visitors from 9 a.m. to noon, and the Skirball provides and funds the bus transportation to get the children there.

"When the center opened, I would have said that our focus was children 1 day old and onward," Herscher says. "Today the target is 2-year-olds to maybe 9-year-olds--with a focused idea that if we don't introduce all of these values, democratic ideals, to youngsters, it's just too late."

When Winnick Hall is finished, the Skirball construction costs will total $152 million. And, with about 450,000 square feet, it will become the largest Jewish cultural institution in North America.

Along with its square footage, the center's annual operating budget has grown--from $3.5 million to $10 million, most of it spent on developing programs and expanding staff rather than the physical plant. Herscher's philosophy is the opposite of "if you build it, they will come": If they come, he says, then you build. Putting programs first, Herscher says, is the reason the center needed to add Ahmanson Hall and more performance space to the campus.

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