Imagine this: It's a Saturday morning in 2012. You want to visit a museum, so you jump on the subway and go up to 125th Street. You check out the current show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, then walk east to the redeveloped Victoria Theater, where you spend an hour taking in the permanent exhibit at the Jazz Museum in Harlem. Maybe you stop in at the Dia Center for the Arts, which has opened up in a restored historic building nearby. You grab something to eat, then decide to see a show at one of the many performing arts venues in the neighborhood: the Classical Theater of Harlem, the Gatehouse, the Apollo, or maybe the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company's new theater on 125th Street.
The cultural scene in Harlem has been building momentum for some time, but the next several years will bring an unprecedented expansion of the number of institutions on 125th Street and in the surrounding area. The Classical Theater of Harlem, the Jazz Museum, and the Harlem Arts Alliance will all have homes in the Victoria Theater, which is being redeveloped into a combination cultural destination, hotel, and condominium. And the proposed rezoning of 125th Street to allow greater building heights will likely result in more mixed-used developments like the Victoria.
The state finally announced its choice of a developer for the Victoria in November, ending three years of waiting by both the developer, Danforth Development Partners, and the cultural institutions that were part of the proposal. The Classical Theater of Harlem, which until recently shared a small and hardly state-of-the art theater with the Harlem School of the Arts, will have its own fully equipped 199-seat theater on the third floor of the Victoria. There will also be a smaller, 99-seat theater, which the Harlem Arts Alliance will program with local artists.
"Building a permanent home for a professional theater company on 125th Street will be a very important step for us and also for Harlem," the artistic director of the Classical Theater of Harlem, Alfred Preisser, said.
The Victoria will also be the first permanent home for the Jazz Museum, which was founded in 1998 by a Washington lawyer and former Nixon White House staffer, Leonard Garment. The museum's executive director, Loren Schoenberg, said it will have between 10,000 and 15,000 square feet in the Victoria, as well as a museum shop on the ground floor. Most of the space will be devoted to an exhibition on jazz history organized by Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the 50,000-square-foot permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
"Our permanent exhibition space will knock your socks off," Mr. Schoenberg said. "It's going to be experiential, like the Holocaust museum."
The chairman of the Harlem Arts Alliance, Voza Rivers, will be returning to the Victoria, where his theater company, Heritage Theater Group, was briefly in residence in the mid-1990s, before the state closed the building. HAA was included in several of the competing developers' plans. While Mr. Rivers said that HAA would have had more square footage in some of the others — including a larger theater, gallery space for local artists, and offices for small local cultural non-profits — Mr. Rivers described himself as "very pleased" that the final decision has been made and the Danforth plan is going forward.
The founder and managing partner of Danforth Development Partners, Steven Williams, said that he expects the redeveloped Victoria to be a catalyst for business and development in the area. "Harlem's restaurants are not doing as well as they should," he said. "Midtown restaurants have varied customer base: the businesspeople at lunch, the theater-hour crowd, post-theater crowd. We need to increase foot traffic on 125th Street by people other than shoppers. Hopefully that will influence some of these clothing stores to return to the jazz venues they used to be."
Mr. Williams estimated that construction on the building would be completed by the end of 2011.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company moved its offices to Harlem from Union Square in 2005. The company is currently working with the city to explore sites for a permanent home, which would include a theater, space for the company's educational programs, administrative offices, and rehearsal space that could be rented to other companies in the neighborhood.
"We did a market study and found that there is a real need above 96th Street for [rehearsal] space," the company's executive director, Jean Davidson, said. "We'd like to help fill that gap." In terms of location, "We're drawn to 125th Street," Ms. Davidson said, because of the convenience to transportation and the proximity to other institutions, such as the Apollo Theater and the new cultural residents at the Victoria.
If Dia, which is currently looking for a new home in Manhattan, decides to move to Harlem, that will be a powerful statement about the neighborhood's magnetism and its future as a cultural destination. Dia's director, Jeffrey Weiss, said in a New York Times Magazine article last year that he was interested in reclaiming a historic building in a neighborhood not typically associated with the high-end art world. Mr. Weiss confirmed in an e-mail to The New York Sun that Dia is considering possible sites in Harlem, among other neighborhoods. For now, Dia has a three-year partnership with the Hispanic Society of America on Audubon Terrace; the current exhibition, "Francis Alÿs: Fabiola" runs through April 6.
"Dia has always been pioneering in their approach to the geography of this city," the director of the Studio Museum, Thelma Golden, said. "When they went to Chelsea" — in 1987 — "it was a neighborhood where one had to be able to see the future," she added. "They're looking in Harlem now, [because] it's an exciting place at the moment." The rezoning of 125th Street would bring lots of new development, and the city's Department of Cultural Affairs is considering ways to ensure that culture has a place in it. One city-owned site that the Department has its eye on for a cultural component is Mart 125, previously a vendor's hall, which is across from the Apollo, on the south side of 125th Street.