Six months after City Council approved a budget that slashed the Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF) by two-thirds, putting in jeopardy the survival of 230 local organizations, and eliminated the entire Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE), Councilman Isaiah Thomas has put together an 18-member Arts and Culture Task Force with the intent to “generate more revenue for the city as well as improve the livelihood through several social initiatives.” There’s even talk of an Art Week dedicated to arts and culture.
While I applaud this effort to bring community members to the table, it raises more questions than it answers. Meanwhile, the Mellon and Penn Foundations doled out an additional $8 million in pandemic relief, filling the void in city leadership and public funding.
For the record, we should be proud of the work Council has done during the pandemic. It deserves recognition in fighting for working families when it comes to housing, food insecurity, transparency in the budgetary process, and countless other battles, but when it comes to the arts, the city needs to redeem itself.
President-elect Joe Biden has said on numerous occasions, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget!”
While the task force will engage local leaders with city government and may deliver valuable insights, whether it can restore lost funding to the tune of nearly $3 million is the only thing that should matter. It cannot bail the city out with good PR to improve its image. The city needs to show that it can be trusted with public tax dollars after it basically abandoned the arts in June. I applaud the acknowledgment that much work is needed for the recovery of a $3.4 billion industry, but this admission is six months too late. The city basically washed its hands and left the sector to fend for itself. That’s an unjust and unacceptable practice, a blatant disregard for an industry it supposedly now cherishes.
There were three important hearings last spring. Public testimony was held on May 27 and June 9, where dozens upon dozens of advocates presented stunning testimony on the value of the arts in our communities, including some members of this very task force. A third testimony was delivered on May 19 by Chief Cultural Officer Kelly Lee, during the waning days of a fully staffed OACCE. She reported on the impact of the pandemic on the arts, and the functions of her office. Here are some staggering numbers people ought to know about OACCE from January 2016 to March 2020:
The Public Art program completed 67 conservation and 16 Percent for Art projects. Art In City Hall presented 109 exhibitions, featuring 2,169 artists, and over 350 community partners. There were 226 free community activities supporting 3,761 performers. In terms of marketing and outreach, we are talking a viewership in the millions. A staff of nine generated this production.
The good news is that a smaller OACCE is set to return soon, which raises the question: Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing? The task force also resembles a smaller Mayor’s Cultural Advisory Council, which was under OACCE when the chief cultural officer was a cabinet-level position in the Mayor’s Office.
I applaud the effort, but this seems like a very small down payment from city leadership.
Tu Huynh is a former City Hall exhibitions manager for OACCE. From 2003–20, he presented nearly 300 exhibitions, providing voice, representation, and opportunity.