Peggy Amsterdam wasn’t the first Philadelphia cultural leader to contend that the arts — in addition to nourishing the human spirit — are key to the region’s economic vitality.
But, more than anyone in recent memory, Amsterdam directed the spade work that established what’s known in military circles as facts on the ground.
With her death on Saturday from cancer at age 60, the challenge for cultural and civic leaders who follow Amsterdam is to marshal those facts to achieve the long-sought dedicated source of public funding for the arts.
As head of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Amsterdam directed research that more than made the case for this initiative already in place in the Pittsburgh area, Denver, and elsewhere. Foundation-supported studies have documented that the arts more than pay for themselves in both a return on tax dollars and in economic activity.
Armed with compelling data that $5 was the return on every $1 invested by local governments in arts groups, Amsterdam’s group also sounded a warning on the fragile financial status of hundreds of treasured arts organizations. With the ailing economy, the clock is ticking even faster on those groups’ survival.
With Amsterdam gone, her enthusiasm for the challenge, and her nationally recognized strategic smarts, will be much missed. But while the government support that’s critical to arts groups’ survival eluded Amsterdam in life, its ultimate realization would be a wonderful and fitting legacy for this arts leader.
She certainly left in place the starting blocks for making greater strides on arts support. The most tangible is the city’s resuscitated arts office. In large part as a result of Amsterdam’s advocacy, then-mayoral candidate Michael Nutter campaigned upon and — once elected — delivered on his pledge to restore the office, along with baseline funding that could serve as a regional model.