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City Council seeks to bolster arts funding, bypassing the Philadelphia Cultural Fund

A transfer of $1.3 million from city council's recession relief fund would go toward grants for artists and arts groups.

Council member Isaiah Thomas, seen here in an October, 2020, file photo, and council member Katherine Gilmore Richardson have proposed that $1.3 million from the council's recession relief fund go toward grants to support artists and arts groups.
Council member Isaiah Thomas, seen here in an October, 2020, file photo, and council member Katherine Gilmore Richardson have proposed that $1.3 million from the council's recession relief fund go toward grants to support artists and arts groups.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia City Council, at the behest of Councilmembers Isaiah Thomas and Katherine Gilmore Richardson, is on the verge of approving transfer of $1.3 million from its recession relief fund and dedicating it to the support of grants for artists and nonprofit and for-profit arts organizations.

The transfer legislation, envisioned as facilitating one lump sum of emergency pandemic relief, was unanimously approved and reported out of the Appropriations Committee on Monday. It went before the full Council on Thursday and could receive that body’s final OK by as early as the end of next week.

At Monday’s hearing Thomas called the pandemic relief money “a Band-Aid for right now” and promised to work for more arts funding for the decimated sector in the future.

“It’s a new day,” Thomas said.

The need is great within the $4.1 billion arts sector, as the panelists who assembled to testify in support of the transfer measure confirmed.

Nicole Allen White, interim deputy director for diversity, equity, inclusion, and access at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the museum’s director of government and external affairs, told the committee that artists and small arts organizations “have borne the brunt of this devastation” caused by COVID-19.

“Funding such as the proposed grants created by this transfer ordinance are a lifeline to ensuring that people and organizations that help drive the sector are able to contribute to the recovery,” she said. “However, this must not be the only financial assistance to the sector.”

That note of concern comes after the city’s venerable Philadelphia Cultural Fund, which has been the vehicle for city arts funding for nearly 30 years, had its $3 million budget cut by more than two-thirds when the pandemic hit and Mayor Jim Kenney radically abridged his fiscal 2021 budget.

These new funds would be used for grants administered and distributed by the city itself, not the Cultural Fund. A separate grant-making structure, operating out of the city managing director’s office, could blossom parallel to the Cultural Fund.

Priscilla Luce, interim director of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, who testified at the hearing, called the transfer legislation “a first step in the importance of the city providing significantly greater funds in emergency relief to the arts and culture sector.”

At the same time, she said in an interview, “It’s important that the city recommit to the Cultural Fund, because so many in the arts and culture sector depend on the Cultural Fund for equitable grant-making. … I hope that it will be possible for the city to provide additional significantly more relief funds for the sector because it’s just urgently needed.”

“Do I want individual artists to get some money? Yes!” said Barbara Silzle, executive director of the PCF, who testified in favor of the transfer money Monday. “I do not want the creative drain to happen to Philly, where people feel like they have to go to Cleveland to be able to work in the arts because Philly has let them down and PCF got cut by 68%.

“But it’s 205 organizations that are getting [PCF] grants in a few weeks from us rather than 349 — over 100 aren’t getting a penny, and even those that are, are getting [grants] cut by 45%,” she said.

The mayor’s fiscal 2022 budget is not expected to be released until sometime next month, and there is no indication of where he will come out on arts funding in general or the Cultural Fund in particular.

A spokesperson for Kenney said that the Cultural Fund is barred from making grants to individual artists and for-profit groups, necessitating creation of a separate grant-making operation within the city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy. The new grants are to be administered by the city’s chief cultural officer, Kelly Lee, who runs the arts office. Lee referred all questions to the mayor’s press office.

“The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected Philadelphia’s entire arts and cultural landscape, and we know that additional funding would be a welcome resource for this community,” the mayor’s spokesperson said.

Max Weisman, a spokesperson for Thomas, said the focus of the new fund will be on individual artists. Nonprofit arts organizations and for-profit venues will receive a smaller portion of the grants.

“We love the Cultural Fund,” Weisman said. “They do have a great track record of giving money to arts and cultural organizations, but the intent of this grant is the majority of the recipients are going to be individual artists, and based on their [financial] structure, the Cultural Fund legally cannot distribute funds to an individual or to a for-profit entity”

When the Cultural Fund was created in the early 1990s, as the city dug its way out of another devastating financial crisis, it abolished what were called Class 500 grants, an annual fund of roughly $15 million controlled by Council and used for funding community projects and arts groups in neighborhoods. Grant-making was largely on an ad-hoc basis salted by councilmanic whim.

According to Cathryn Coate, then-executive director of the cultural alliance, the Cultural Fund was set up to allow grantees, all nonprofit cultural groups, to make subgrants to individual artists.

“The point of the Cultural Fund, obviously, was that it was a separate entity, that it was not controlled by Council, that it was not controlled by the administration, and that it was a peer-review process that was fair and equitable,” she said. “That’s the essential point.”

Weisman said that grant decisions made from the new batch of arts money would be handled through Lee’s office and that grant review would be performed by members of an arts task force brought together by Thomas and Gilmore Richardson.

LaNeshe Miller-White, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia and Theatre in the X, and a task force member, said she supports both the new initiative and the Cultural Fund’s grant-review process, and said she was not sure why the Cultural Fund has not been involved with the new grants.

“It’s like an exemplary grant-making process, on both ends, both as a recipient and as the person sitting on the panels,” she said of the Cultural Fund. “It feels so equitable and fair.”

Weisman, Thomas’ aide, said the new funding is not at odds with the Cultural Fund.

“We value and respect the work they do for the Philadelphia community as it relates to arts and cultural organizations,” he said. “This is about providing grants to the arts and culture community as quickly and efficiently as possible.”