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Philly Councilmember proposes creative arts fund, calling for ‘consequences’ if city underfunds the arts

David Oh proposed a $45 million relief fund and urged arts groups to hold politicians accountable if they are not responsive.

Pedestrians walk past the University of the Arts on South Broad Street last week.
Pedestrians walk past the University of the Arts on South Broad Street last week.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Councilmember David Oh has proposed establishing a $45 million “creative arts fund” that would help stabilize the entire arts industry in Philadelphia — from nonprofit groups to filmmaking and for-profit venues — bolster the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, and help ensure that the city remains a cultural mecca, he said.

At the same time, Oh said there must be “consequences” if city government ignores the cultural and arts sector, which, pre-COVID-19, provided nearly 40,000 jobs and pumped $3.1 billion annually into the local economy.

“I think that there’s no consequence to not supporting the arts in the city,” Oh said in an interview Monday. “The arts and culture community is huge. ... But when they are disappointed, when the mayor zeroes [out] the [arts] budget and Council doesn’t pass a restoration bill and then puts $1.5 million back in instead of $4.1 million, they say, ‘Thank you.’ They don’t say, like, ‘Wow, you really screwed us over! No thanks. Don’t ever call us.’”

“There’s a lot of like willingness to be bamboozled,” said Oh.

» READ MORE: After being decimated by the pandemic, Philly’s arts sector needs restored funding | Opinion

Priscilla Luce, interim head of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, said that whatever was the case in the past, arts advocates are not being bamboozled.

“I think the pandemic has thrust us into a situation where survivability is now in question for at least a portion of the sector,” she said. “You are seeing and will be seeing a significant amount of energy being deployed around the need for emergency relief funding, which is what the Cultural Alliance has advocated for. So I think we’re being pretty vocal if not vociferous in our desire for relief funding. That’s where we’re headed. As vociferous as we can be.”

Oh’s arts plan comes on the back of a proposal from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance for a $20 million relief package for the arts, unveiled about 10 days ago.

Council is currently negotiating with the Kenney administration over the mayor’s proposed $5.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2022. The budget laid out by the mayor restores some but not all arts funding to pre-pandemic levels and would leave the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, which is the city’s key vehicle for arts grants to organizations across virtually all neighborhoods, with $2 million, $1 million less than the fund had the year before the pandemic.

At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the fund was eliminated entirely in Kenney’s emergency revised budget, but $1 million was restored in negotiations with Council. This year, arts advocates lobbied for a full budget restoration for the fund.

Kenney settled on $2 million.

» READ MORE: Other cities are thinking bigger than Philly as arts groups try to rebound from the pandemic

City Council has shown some sympathy for arts advocates. Councilmembers Isaiah Thomas and Katherine Gilmore Richardson backed legislation a few months ago to transfer about $1.3 million from Council’s rainy day fund into a grant-making fund, called Illuminate the Arts. That money has not been dispensed yet.

Last week, Thomas and Gilmore Richardson and several other Council members sent an “Arts and Culture Budget Priorities” memo to Council President Darrell L. Clarke. The memo proposed an additional $3 million for the Cultural Fund “above the administration’s FY22 budget proposal.” It also called for another $2 million for the Illuminate the Arts fund.

A spokesperson for Clarke did not respond directly to the memo or the Oh proposal. Clarke is “immersed in negotiations” with the Kenney administration over the fiscal year 2022 budget, the spokesman said in an email. By law, Council must approve a budget by the end of this month.

“Arts and culture funding is an important line item in this and any city budget,” he said, noting that Clarke “supports the strong work of Councilmembers Isaiah Thomas and Katherine Gilmore-Richardson, and their work in committee, hearing from artists and arts groups in neighborhoods across Philadelphia, on what they most need to survive the pandemic and thrive again.”

The spokesman called for patience while Clarke and members of the negotiating team hammer out “a fair and equitable budget with Mayor Kenney. It won’t be too long now.”

Oh said that his creative fund could be carved out of the $1.4 billion COVID-19 relief package due from the Biden administration.

Kenney administration officials have downplayed use of that money, arguing that it is largely already spoken for or cannot be used for arts funding.

Oh dismisses the administration’s objections.

“I absolutely don’t buy that argument,” he said. “I mean, you could give them $10 billion and they won’t have any money, the way they look at it.”

If the city does not support its arts organizations, Oh said, the city will lose them — New York is 90 miles away and just put $25 million into an arts program that is seeking to employ 1,500 artists. Chicago just unveiled a $60 million program for the arts, he said.

But how to garner support for his proposal in Philadelphia?

“In the arts, people are very knowledgeable, they’re very well-educated,” Oh said. “They have to understand that they have the power. They have the power, if they will use it.”

Should artists and composers and their supporters be in the streets?

“Yeah, yeah, that’s basically what I’m saying,” said Oh.