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Attempt at sidestepping cultural funding norms provides teachable moment for budget watchers

A grant promised by Mayor Nutter to the Philadelphia Orchestra earlier this year is raising questions about the role of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.

With all that's going on today with the libraries it was easy to overlook this piece by the Inquirer Cultural Writer Stephan Salisbury that appeared in print in the Daily Magazine section.  In it, Salisbury reports on a $250,000 grant that Mayor Nutter promised to the Philadelphia Orchestra Association back in the spring.  Apparently, such a grant goes outside of the "approved" method for distributing city funds to cultural organizations:

The Philadelphia Cultural Fund was established in 1991 as a vehicle for the city to provide equitable arts funding. It is not a city agency, and its funds - all provided by the city - are disbursed after rigorous peer review and on the basis of a complex mathematical formula. The largest grants are in the $15,000 range and provide general operating support. Mayoral or political agendas are not a part of the grant-making process.

Some members of the Cultural Fund, all of whom spoke anonymously, were concerned over this break with the rules.

But the quote that caught the attention of our newsroom this morning was this gem that only budget wonk could love (but is important to every taxpayer):

Unwittingly or not, Nutter's decision to give $250,000 to the orchestra raised the ghosts of those Class 500 grants past.

Ok. Some definitions are in order.  Salisbury explains:

Prior to 1991, city money found its way to cultural organizations through what were known as Class 500 grants, a multimillion-dollar pot of cash distributed annually through City Council, without benefit of process or review.

Salisbury also talks to Gary Steuer the recently appointed head of the Mayor's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.  Steuer explains that some special circumstances may occur in the future that make it necessary for the mayor to use Cultural Fund money but that the Fund would continue to exist due to what one can only imagine were some interesting uses of Class 500 money prior to 1991.

Finally, some budget numbers for the Cultural Fund:

Fund president McClenney-Brooker noted that Nutter initially had increased the fund's budget from $2.2 million to $4.2 million; even after the $1 million reduction announced in the wake of the fiscal crisis and the $250,000 diverted to the orchestra, the budget stands at $2.95 million.