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New fund sparked by William Penn Foundation will dole out millions to arts groups and artists in ‘severe financial straits’

The new fund is the largest of a number of other emergency funds that have formed to provide relief to cultural organizations and artists in the region. You can read about them here.

With the Wilma Theater on the right and Merriam and Academy of Music on left, South Broad Street Saturday night was uncharacteristically quiet and sparse as the coronavirus pandemic kept the city's arts venues dark.
With the Wilma Theater on the right and Merriam and Academy of Music on left, South Broad Street Saturday night was uncharacteristically quiet and sparse as the coronavirus pandemic kept the city's arts venues dark.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The William Penn Foundation is leading a group of donors to throw a lifeline to Philadelphia’s arts and culture sector.

Citing factors like the sudden disappearance of ticket revenue and cancellation of spring fund-raisers at many arts groups, William Penn and others have contributed to a newly created emergency fund to the tune of $3.4 million.

The money will go to organizations experiencing financial difficulties during the coronavirus crisis as well as individual artists who have seen their livelihoods evaporate.

“Our hope is that the fund will help address the most immediate needs,” said Janet Haas, chair of William Penn’s board of directors. “It’s an important moment to do this. These organizations are making decisions every day about staffing and how to survive. Creating a fund fairly early on will help them meet their needs and to have more planning and flexibility.”

So far, most of the donors to the effort, called COVID-19 Arts Aid PHL, are local: William Penn is giving $2.5 million, with additional contributions from the Barra, Connelly, Independence, Lenfest, Victory, and Wyncote foundations, as well as one Philadelphia couple who have asked to remain anonymous.

» READ MORE: William Penn Foundation fast-tracks $6.6 million for the arts, adds $5 million for pre-K, loosens grant restrictions

“We did reach out to all the local funders,” said Haas.

The New York-based Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has also kicked in money, and its presence is considered an important imprimatur. That matters because organizers hope the fund will attract more donors.

Among other major philanthropies with a Philadelphia presence is the Pew Charitable Trusts, founded in Philadelphia but now maintaining the majority of its operations in Washington, D.C.

The group, which is not a participant in the COVID-19 Arts Aid PHL fund, is still examining how its philanthropic muscle might be applied to the crisis.

“Pew is currently assessing how best to support Philadelphia, our current grantees, and others impacted by the immediate and longer-term effects of COVID-19,” wrote a Pew spokesperson in an emailed statement she attributed to Frazierita Klasen, the Pew vice president in charge of the foundation’s local work. “We are committed to helping Philadelphia, our hometown, as we navigate through these unprecedented times.”

The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance is managing the process of awarding grants from the fund, and Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and Philadelphia Cultural Fund are partners in the effort. The money is aimed at small and mid-sized organizations — those with budgets up to $15 million. In addition, individual artists can apply for “micro-grants” of $500.

Midsize groups were chosen, GPCA president Maud Lyon said, because in the face of a crisis, “small organizations can cut back their product and hunker down and often get through, and the largest organizations are very visible and get a lot of press. But the midsize groups, which includes most of our museums and larger theater and dance companies, are in the midsize range.”

Those companies tend to have a fixed cost structure and sometimes operate buildings, “but they don’t have ready access to the major donors and funders the very largest organizations do,” she said.

Arts groups in general, she said, “operate on a very thin margin in the best of times and in recent years have increasingly relied on earned revenue, so this is hitting everybody immediately and hard. The arts and culture nonprofits have been thrown into severe financial straits.”

The point of the fund isn’t to replace all the revenue arts groups and artists have lost, but rather to “provide critical support to groups that need it most in the next one to three months. It won’t make them whole but will protect many that we would be in danger of losing if they don’t get some major support,” Lyon said.

Some other new arts funds of note

Over the past few weeks, a number of emergency funds have come together aimed at providing relief to cultural organizations and artists in the region.

  1. The Museum Council of Greater Philadelphia, a service and educational organization, started a crowdfunding campaign April 1, which has raised about $8,000. The Greater Philadelphia Museum Workers Fund, run by the council, is largely aimed at employees who have been laid off or furloughed from area institutions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The fund is designed to provide small grants for basic necessities, like groceries. As of Monday, 67 grants of $50 had been made.

  2. 215 Festival and Blue Stoop PHL, two literary organizations, are sponsoring the Philadelphia Writers Emergency Fund, another crowdsourced effort, this one aimed at assisting writers, independent booksellers, and workers at independent presses with small, but critical assistance. The fund, set up in March, has raised $10,000 and is aiming, now, at $15,000.

  3. The Andy Warhol Foundation and Temple Contemporary are in the process of establishing a local fund for visual artists with $100,000 from Warhol. The foundation ordinarily works with partners in 16 cities, including Philadelphia, and has devoted $1.6 million to create funds in all. The Temple Contemporary COVID-19 emergency fund should be up within a week or so, according to Robert Blackson, founding director of Temple Contemporary.

  4. The Pennsylvania Humanities Council, a private organization, has established a pop-up grant program to help organizations remain visible. Grants ranging from $500 to $2,000 will help establish podcasts, Zoom meetings, and otherwise work to address problems of social distancing. The program, which the council funded with $20,000 so far, is scheduled to close at the end of April, but may continue, depending on need, said Laurie Zierer, PHC executive director.

  5. Other COVID-19 resources and emergency funding efforts have been gathered together on the city office of arts and culture website at

No particular monetary goal has been set for the new COVID-19 Arts Aid PHL fund, which organizers hope will also attract donations from corporations and individuals. A similar effort supported with $3 million by William Penn to support vulnerable populations, the PHL COVID-19 Fund, has now raised $12 million from more than 2,000 donors, a Philadelphia Foundation spokesperson said.

» READ MORE: To avert ‘enormous’ deficit, Philadelphia Orchestra musicians take 20% pay cut as special fund-raising begins

William Penn, the largest foundation focused solely on Philadelphia and the region, has doled out more than $10 million in special funding in response to the coronavirus crisis. Haas said the additional payouts were possible, in part, because the rise in the foundation’s investments in the past several years increased its grant-making budget by $5 million this year.

She also noted the substantial ongoing support the foundation had made to arts and culture, and said that arts groups in the region make up a “whole ecosystem that makes Philadelphia stand out.”

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“Art speaks to all of us, to our spirits, and really uplifts us and brings wonder,” Haas said. “It makes it possible for us to move beyond ourselves. In dark times, arts matter especially.”