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African American Museum funds slashed in revised city budget

Elimination of $231,000 in operating support threatens the stability of the museum, the premiere African American cultural institution in the region.

The novelist and essayist James Baldwin (left) talks to James G. Spady at the African American Museum in Philadelphia in March 1986.
The novelist and essayist James Baldwin (left) talks to James G. Spady at the African American Museum in Philadelphia in March 1986.Read moreLeandre Jackson

The new proposed Philadelphia budget for next year, presented at the beginning of the month in response to the financial havoc wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, eliminates the city’s support for the African American Museum in Philadelphia — $231,000 that the museum says is critical to its continued operations.

The museum says the loss would deliver a serious blow to the institution, built by the city in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

Mayor Jim Kenney said that because of declining tax revenues, the city faces a $649 million hole in his original proposed $5.2 billion budget and that he had been forced to make “truly painful decisions.” City Council must approve the budget before the start of the new fiscal year, July 1.

Patricia Wilson Aden, the museum’s president and CEO, said that although the museum has radically reduced its reliance on public funding in recent years, “the city’s annual allocation has formed the bedrock of the museum’s operating budget” of roughly $1.6 million.

“At a time when the African American community has been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Aden continued, “and as midsize museums like AAMP are particularly challenged to sustain their operations, the equitable financial support of the City of Philadelphia is even more crucial.”

The city’s support for the museum in recent years has been through the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, the main public agency nurturing the city’s estimated $4.1 billion cultural sector.

The revised budget eliminates that office, and in so doing eliminates the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, a pool of unrestricted money that went to arts organizations in virtually every neighborhood of the city to cover all kinds of daily expenses. Last year, the Cultural Fund distributed a little over $3 million to 349 organizations.

(A petition launched last week at calls for continued city support of the arts and culture office; as of Tuesday morning, it had attracted more than 11,000 signatures.)

Funding for the African American Museum, the first municipally financed black museum in the country, is not broken out in the city budget. Its funding is part of the money set aside by the soon-to-vanish arts and culture office.

The new budget calls for ending $160,000 in support for Historic Philadelphia (HPI), the nonprofit that revitalized and operates Franklin Square and a string of storytelling locations throughout Independence National Historic Park and the historic district. Historic Philadelphia was funded through the Office of the City Representative, which was also axed in the revised budget.

Amy Needle, Historic Philadelphia president and chief executive, said the entire staff, including herself, is now on furlough. “It is our hope that the city will restore some of HPI funding,” Needle said. Seasonally, the organization employs about 70 full- and part-time staffers.

The Chinese Lantern Festival, which HPI has brought to Franklin Square every spring, has been postponed this year because of the pandemic, depriving the organization of the vast bulk of its revenue.

The African American Museum is not unfamiliar with rocky times. It went through five directors in its first decade. It lost nearly a half-million dollars in annual state funding. The city subsidy has dwindled from well over $300,000 to its current level of $231,000. At one point about 15 years ago, the museum ran out of money. More than a dozen staff members were laid off, and the institution teetered on the brink of closure.

But a new director, Romona Riscoe Benson, reorganized operations and stabilized the organization. Aden, who succeeded Benson in 2013, has worked to diversify funding sources and has focused the museum programmatically. Exhibitions such as Stephen Hayes’ powerful installation Cash Crop, and John Dowell’s Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past, have revitalized programming, which is now aimed at diverse audiences.

Kelly Lee, head of the arts and culture office, at least for the next few weeks, declined to comment. She is reportedly moving to another position in the Managing Director’s Office.

For Valerie V. Gay, the Barnes Foundation’s deputy director for audience engagement and former director of Art Sanctuary, the African American Museum is beyond question “the leading African American cultural institution in our region, not just the city but the entire region.”

Gay said the cut would send a negative message about the city’s commitment to fairness in funding, “particularly in cultural programming.”

“The African American Museum’s position in the city is beneficial to everyone, just as the [Philadelphia Museum of Art] or the Barnes’ positions are, or the Franklin Institute or the Free Library. Institutions are absolutely important to our community,” Gay said. “It’s disheartening and saddens me that they will be completely zeroed out ... at a time when our city is really starting to make strides around equity.”

(The Art Museum receives an annual city subsidy, reduced from about $2.5 million to $2 million in the revised budget.)

Karen Warrington, a dancer and choreographer with Arthur Hall’s Afro-American Dance Ensemble in the 1960s and ’70s, and later a journalist, broadcaster, filmmaker, and communications director for former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. and former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, is troubled by the withdrawal of city funding for the African American Museum.

“In the ’70s, the black community fought to get the museum built, and in 2020 we cannot lose it,” Warrington said. “It is just as important and relevant now as it was then, and in these very troubled and uncertain times, it may well be even more important.”

City Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose district includes the museum at Seventh and Arch Streets, said he has discussed the elimination of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy — and the elimination of the African American Museum subsidy and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund — with his colleagues on City Council.

“We’re still trying to decipher everything that is cut and zeroed out” in the budget, Squilla said Monday. “I’m not for zeroing out anything. I understand we have to make cuts, and everybody has to live with those cuts.”

But coming back from the COVID crisis, he said, “is going to be a major challenge” for the city, which he said in a sense heightens the importance of enabling the survival of the African American Museum and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.

The city needs “arts and culture and museums back, places people can go and reimagine themselves,” Squilla said.

“We’re going to need these outlets, our music and cultural activities that we have and that make people feel good about themselves. We need that more now than ever. So, I understand the cuts, and I think Council understands the cuts, and even the organizations understand the cuts,” he said.

“I think that that’s the challenge we in Council are going to have to try to come up with to see if we could enable this to still operate.”