Two major backers of arts and culture in Philadelphia have teamed up to award $8 million in COVID-19-related relief for the sector.

The $4 million each from Philadelphia’s William Penn Foundation and the New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will be distributed to a cross section of area arts groups — large and small, both community-based and internationally known. The Philadelphia Orchestra and Barnes Foundation are receiving $400,000 each. North Philadelphia’s Village of Arts and Humanities is on the list for $200,000.

Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, a small and relatively young company, is receiving $100,000 — a sum that is about a third of its annual budget, which makes it a “very major deal,” said Katie Moore, the company’s business director.

“That will have an incredible impact on our ability to sustain annual programs and also on our ability to not just get to the light at the end of the tunnel but also past it,” said Moore, referring to the pandemic’s conclusion. “We want to be around for decades.”

The arts-funding package going to 37 groups is the most recent assembled by William Penn since March, when the pandemic emptied museum galleries and concert halls — and drained coffers. The goal was to get funding into the hands of groups quickly, “supporting organizations that need it right now,” said Judilee Reed, director of the William Penn Foundation’s Creative Communities program. “I know we haven’t solved every problem through these grants, but I do know just from emails we received from organizations and their leadership and staff how deeply meaningful [the support] is.”

As it has done with other arts-relief initiatives, William Penn this time pulled in additional philanthropic muscle. Mellon was a natural partner since it was already one of the largest funders of arts and culture in Philadelphia. “It felt like a model that we should explore with a city that is important to us historically,” said Mellon Foundation arts and culture program officer Susan Feder.

Philadelphia Orchestra assistant conductor Erina Yashima leading the ensemble for a recent "Digital Stage" concert recorded at the Mann Center.
Jeff Fusco
Philadelphia Orchestra assistant conductor Erina Yashima leading the ensemble for a recent "Digital Stage" concert recorded at the Mann Center.

There are no restrictions on how the money may be spent, Reed said.

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society will use its $200,000 to continue streaming concerts, pay musicians, and to get through the year without a deficit. For Pennsylvania Ballet, an infusion of $400,000 from William Penn and Mellon gives the company a buttress as leaders consider a future in which levels of ticket sales and philanthropy are far from certain.

“This is not only generous but, frankly, inspiring support,” said ballet executive director Shelly Power. “It’s comforting to know they have a shared value in supporting the arts in Philly. They are trying to shore up as much as they can so that we survive and can come back strong.”

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, conspicuously absent from the list among large institutions, declined to be considered for this round of grants so that available support would go to smaller organizations, William Penn officials said. An Art Museum spokesperson confirmed that explanation.

In addition to its partnership with Mellon, William Penn has approved a separate batch of 11 new COVID relief grants totaling $825,000 to groups like Centennial Parkside Community Development Corp. ($25,000), the Philadelphia Zoo ($200,000), and the Franklin Institute ($200,000).

All in all, the William Penn Foundation’s total arts spending for 2020 will be up by about $2.5 million due to increased support for COVID relief, a spokesperson said. Initially, the foundation had budgeted $16 million for arts and culture in 2020; now, the extra need has boosted that number to $18.5 million for the year.

The foundation continues to partner on new funding for the sector from outside of the city. Earlier this year, William Penn, the Doris Duke, and other foundations contributed toward a COVID relief fund that was distributed to hundreds of Philadelphia arts groups and more than a thousand individual artists.

On the horizon is a partnership of William Penn, the Ford Foundation, and others that aims to award a total of $10 million to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) arts groups. Whatever William Penn contributes toward that initiative would be on top of its normal arts giving, a spokesperson said. More details on the program are expected by February.

It is heartening to see Philadelphia being recognized for its rich arts scene, Reed says.

National philanthropies getting involved in Philadelphia and giving the city their stamp of validation is a sign that “there is something very special here.”