A handful of politicians - ranging from state senators to local representatives - gathered at the Big Canvas Confab on Dec. 6, 2008, to hear the ideas and concerns of taxpayers regarding the future of arts and culture in the Philadelphia area.

After listening to the main event presentation, as well as individual concerns expressed in small focus groups, the politicians seemed very receptive to the general idea that arts and culture play a vital role in the health of the region by brining in new jobs, reducing dropout rates in schools, and strengthening local ties by way of community centers and civic programs.

The politicians were open with their concerns as well, expressing the reality that budgets are tight, and in this time of economic trouble, the local community would really need to come together with some force if they expected increased funding for the arts.

Admittedly, the gathering for The Big Canvas Confab was a giant step in that direction, but additional collaboration would be required to show state and local decision-makers that broad regional support exists for the arts. Otherwise, it was made crystal clear that the same big museums and organizations with “power and influence” in the area will continue to receive funding at the expense of smaller grassroots organizations.

However, in my particular focus group, Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Sanchez offered an interesting alternative to expanding arts in the absence of operating dollars provided by the state or county government. She suggested that politicians can get creative with policy initiatives and tax incentives to help support local artists and community centers in the area.

But again, it was noted that the success of such initiatives would ultimately rest in the hands of the people, as citizens would be required to engage their local politicians and express support for the arts if they wanted to make something happen along these lines.

Similarly, Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoffel issued a severe warning for politicians that ignore the will of the people regarding community arts programs by referring to the on-site protesters of the Barnes Move, which depicted the anger and frustration in the region regarding political involvement with the arts.

One specific story that struck a nerve in me and had our group politicians fully engaged was that of a Philadelphia School District executive that recounted his childhood with a learning disability and the resulting years of academic failure - until he discovered arts and music through classes and extracurricular activities. He explained that where he was a failure in everything else in his life, arts gave him something to excel in and a reason to live.

Today this man has a successful career in the Philadelphia School District, not because he did well on the SAT’s, but because arts and music existed to draw out the other talents that made him a valuable contributor to society. I can’t imagine a better story than this man’s personal account to share with politicians regarding the true impact that arts and culture can have on a person’s life.

Overall, the event was a success, as 200 citizens and community leaders gathered to share their ideas with state and local decision-makers. The discussions were passionate and informative, while the general presentation of data gathered from the pervious Big Canvas events gave a clear sense that taxpayer support exists for expanding regional arts funding and initiatives.

And while a concrete plan for the arts was not ironed out at this event, future sessions will be held to brainstorm specific funding ideas now that regional support within the arts community has been established.

So stay tuned to the Big Canvas blog for upcoming events and activities and be sure to let your own voice be heard during the final round of discussions regarding the future arts and culture in the Philadelphia region.