It looked like it was never going to happen.
Year after year, plans to build a cultural institution on the World Trade Center site percolated, only to then fizzle out. The International Freedom Center, the Joyce Theater, the Drawing Center, the Signature Theater, New York City Opera, a design by Frank Gehry — all were discussed as possibilities, but none went anywhere.
Now, two decades after the 2003 master plan for ground zero called for a cultural component, a performing arts center is finally preparing to open there in September. And though it bears the name of Ronald O. Perelman, the billionaire businessman who jump-started the moribund project in 2016 by announcing a $75 million donation, the person who finally got the project over the finish line, and who ended up giving more money than Mr. Perelman, is Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor.
Mr. Bloomberg has given $130 million to the arts center, a gift that has not been previously revealed, and stepped up as chairman of the board in 2020 (replacing Barbra Streisand, who had been appointed chair in 2016) when the organization needed a strong fund-raiser. The center, which will ultimately cost $500 million — more than twice what was projected in 2016 — is now on track to have a ribbon cutting on Sept. 13.
“I can afford it,” Mr. Bloomberg said of his largess during a recent hard hat tour of the center. “And they need the money.”
The center continues to be called the Perelman Performing Arts Center, but the Perelman name gets less emphasis these days. While the center’s promotional materials once called it “the Perelman” for short, they now tend to call it “PAC NYC,” with PAC standing for Performing Arts Center. Its website, once theperelman.org, is now pacnyc.org, a change officials said that they made in order to tighten its URL.
Mr. Perelman, the cosmetics mogul, has had recent financial woes, prompting some to wonder if he made good on his pledges. But Mr. Bloomberg said Mr. Perelman had come through. “He’s paid in advance — never had to ask him for a check,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “They were always there before the schedule.”
Mr. Perelman said in a statement that the arts center will “bring the renewal and community the arts have always represented.”
“Mike and many others had the vision, and through a real shared commitment, it’s now being realized,” Perelman continued. “I’m thrilled I could play a part in making it happen.”
The new center is opening at a moment when many arts organizations are struggling to come back in the wake of the pandemic, and as New York arts institutions find themselves competing for philanthropic support, talent and audiences. The Shed, another expensive, architecturally striking arts space, opened in Hudson Yards a year before the pandemic struck, and has struggled somewhat to find its footing.
Mr. Bloomberg has been intimately involved with both the Shed and the Perelman — as mayor and as a philanthropist — and has given equally to both: his donations to the Shed have now reached $130 million as well.
As mayor, Mr. Bloomberg initially ceded the World Trade Center site to Gov. George E. Pataki and instead focused on the Far West Side, where his early attempts to build a football stadium and lure the Olympics foundered, but which led to the creation of the Hudson Yards development and the Shed. Over time, though, Mr. Bloomberg turned his attention back to Lower Manhattan, becoming chairman of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in 2006 and then taking a role in the performing arts center.
Mr. Bloomberg said he was a firm believer in the idea that the World Trade Center site should be about renewal as well as loss. “There is so much tragedy,” he said. “The families have to go on and the deceased would have wanted, I think, their relatives to have a life.”
While he readily concedes that he is no culture vulture himself, Bloomberg sees the arts as an important driver of economic development, which guided his approach to cultural capital projects as mayor. “Culture attracts capital a lot more than capital attracts culture,” he said. “That’s why New York and London are the two cities that will survive almost anything — because they have commerce and culture.”
To be sure, both of Mr. Bloomberg’s pet projects face challenges. Commercial real estate is suffering in Lower Manhattan and at Hudson Yards. And it’s difficult to build a constituency for a new cultural center by starting with a building rather than a program, as the Shed has found. But Bloomberg said he is unconcerned.
“It’s a different business model,” he said, likening it to the Serpentine Galleries in London, a museum without a permanent collection where he serves as chairman.
The Perelman center’s artistic plans — it promises to showcase theater, dance, music, chamber opera and film — should come into focus on June 14 when it announces its first season. Recent audition announcements suggest that its plans include the New York premiere of the opera “An American Soldier,” by Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang, and mounting a production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats” set in the contemporary ballroom scene, with roles that “may have flexibility with gender.”
The building, a 138-foot-tall cube, is sheathed in marble that glows at night, and has a flexible interior with three theater spaces that can be combined to provide multiple configurations. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation committed $100 million to the project.
The center has already had some bumpy leadership changes. David Lan, who led the Young Vic theater in London, was initially its temporary artistic director. In 2018, Bill Rauch was appointed artistic director. In 2019, Leslie Koch replaced Maggie Boepple as the center’s president (Ms. Koch in March 2022 segued to president of construction and will step down when the building is complete). And last October, Khady Kamara, the former executive director of Second Stage Theater, was named executive director.
During his recent tour, Mr. Bloomberg was most animated when talking about the flexibility of the new building design — by REX architects — and how the walls and floors can move to accommodate different events.
“I’m a big Broadway fan — I love musicals, and comedies,” he said. As for his taste in visual art, Mr. Bloomberg said he lacked a discerning eye. “I’m not as knowledgeable about culture as I should be,” he said. “I was an engineer in college. Did I take a lot of art courses? No. I know what I like. I’m not sure I could explain to you why.”
And spoke of its commercial value. “It satisfies the need down here of different venues of different sizes,” he said. “Lots of companies are going to want to rent this space. It’s a great place to have a breakfast meeting with your clients. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, confirmations, graduations.”
Mr. Bloomberg sounded bullish on New York as a city that always bounces back, and said that the center is “what downtown needs.”
“Downtown doesn’t have as much culture as other parts of the city,” he said. “This is going to pull the whole thing together. The economics are going to work. Lots of people are going to want to use this location.”