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How Philly’s new chief culture officer aims to bring arts back to schools

Kelly Lee, 49, the city's new chief cultural officer, appointed by Mayor Kenney on Jan. 13, brings deep local ties and a business background to the position.

Kelly Lee has deep local roots but is focusing on culture for her first time.
Kelly Lee has deep local roots but is focusing on culture for her first time.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

Kelly Lee, 49, the city's new chief cultural officer, appointed by Mayor Kenney on Jan. 13, is Philadelphia-born and -raised.

She grew up in Germantown - with a few younger years spent in Virginia - and eventually attended Germantown Friends School and the University of Pennsylvania. She has friends and relatives all over town and loves a night of performance, particularly if it involves smaller groups like InterAct Theatre Company, BalletX, and lots of the Fringe Festival's offerings.

She's worked for the Rendell administration, the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, and Peco.

Most memorably, perhaps, she headed Innovation Philadelphia, a unique economic-development nonprofit started by Mayor John F. Street to enhance the city as a home for young people working in "creative industries" - everything from graphic arts to Web design and other high-tech areas.

The one thing she's never wholly focused on in her work life has been culture.

No arts?

I think my background is very unique. I did not come from a cultural institution into this position. But talking about our cultural amenities has always been part of my business background. In economic development for the city, we're always talking about arts and culture and how it impacts the quality of life as a business-attraction strategy. . . . When I was with Innovation Philadelphia, we worked specifically on growing the for-profit creative industries. I was working very closely with Peggy Amsterdam, who was then running the [Greater Philadelphia] Cultural Alliance. And between the two of us, we were telling the creative economy story because I understood the for-profit and its impact on the city and she understood the nonprofit. So I think this role is a perfect convergence, right?

Have you been involved with any specific arts groups?

I've worked very closely on a lot of boards of cultural institutions, like the Cultural Alliance, like Art Reach, like the Arden, so I understand the impact that arts and culture can have on families and communities.

What are the key areas that your Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy needs to address?

I think one of the challenges is making sure that all Philadelphians, particularly Philadelphia's youth, have access to meaningful cultural experiences. Whether or not that is inside the schools or outside of the schools. That's a huge problem. There's been a lot of talk about education and the cuts of music programs and art programs. How can this office help to bring those types of experiences back into communities, particularly focusing on Philadelphia's youth?

How can it?

I have over 40 meetings scheduled with Philadelphia's cultural institutions, one on one, to learn more about what they do and also get a sense of programs they already provide - because, you know, all of them do. They all have schoolkids come to their institutions, or they do on-site programs at the schools or in after-school programs. We're trying to get an inventory of what exists so . . . you can contact these institutions and see how you can get your kids involved.

The needs of the schools are so great, how can you even begin to address educational services?

I am a firm believer in focusing on those things that I believe I can control and/or have an impact on. What I can do in fiscal year '17 is identify what schools are getting cultural experiences, either in schools or going out to cultural institutions, and then work with Philadelphia artists and cultural groups, large and small, to provide access in those communities where the schools are not engaging in cultural experiences. For example, schools in some communities may not have the resources to take advantage of performances at the Pennsylvania Ballet, but my office can work with the ballet or other dance companies to do programs at after-school programs or recreation centers, or churches in those communities. It's a first step while we work to ensure arts and cultural experiences are in all schools.

So you'll be able to figure out who does what, who needs help. Then what?

There's talk of doing a cultural plan for the city of Philadelphia. Not only will this cultural plan help identify specific things we need to focus on in order to support and grow arts and culture, but how do we weave creativity and cultural experiences throughout the fabric of the city of Philadelphia. How do we make sure arts and culture are part of the economic-development strategy, neighborhood revitalization, education programs, tourism campaigns? How can we make sure that arts and culture are part of everything we do?

We're talking money when we start talking programs. What does your budget look like?

Let me put it this way, I did ask for more. . . . I did ask for an increase to do more programming. [The Cultural Fund allocation remains flat in the mayor's proposed budget - $3.14 million.] All we can do - whatever money we have, do the best we can with it, leverage it to try and attract other resources. Partner and collaborate with one another so that we're not recreating the wheel. . . . Track what we do and, next year, use that tracking to attract more money. That's what I plan on doing.