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Plan points way to city's cultivation of arts

Art in the city might not have much sex appeal at first blush, but the city and its cultural organizations are way past the dating game.

Art in the city might not have much sex appeal at first blush, but the city and its cultural organizations are way past the dating game.

Much of Philadelphia's economic future is dependent on the vibrancy of the world of its artists and cultural institutions. We're talking a long-term relationship here, not some half-hearted fling.

Several years ago, recognizing the importance of the commitment, Mayor Nutter convened a task force - the Mayor's Cultural Advisory Council - to draw up a plan for the city's future with its hydra-headed cultural partners.

Chaired by Joseph Kluger, former president of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association and now a principal in WolfBrown, a nonprofit consultancy, the task force has issued a "vision plan" seeking to consolidate and focus the city's many arts-related activities, and shore up physical and organizational development to ensure a healthy long term.

The point, Nutter said, is to do nothing to impede Philadelphia's growing reputation as "an epicenter for the making of art and as a creative place where people want to live and do business."

The task force, he continued, "has presented to me a comprehensive plan for how our city can continue this progress and strategies for how we can elevate Philadelphia as a world-class city for the arts."

Nearly 50 arts and municipal leaders served on the task force over time, and the final document ratifies the direction already taken by the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. Gary Steuer, the city's chief cultural officer, says his three-year-old office had not been floundering in the dark while awaiting the task force report: "Clearly there's been an overarching plan for the city. The mayor has a plan."

That plan has been to reestablish municipal support for the arts through the cultural office, and to enhance and expand city efforts that support artists and their organizations. This has taken the form of everything from maintaining the city's cultural fund, which provided $1.6 million in grants directly to 201 arts groups this year, to rethinking non-arts programs so they might provide support to the sector.

In 2010, for instance, the city came up with an innovative use of community block grants enabling $500,000 in federal stimulus funding to be used for eight arts-related projects.

Such thinking fits within the "vision plan."

"This plan is not intended to be yet another document that sets the stage for asking government officials for more money," Kluger said. Nevertheless, he added, "we do believe the nonprofit arts community is struggling."

But funds that might be directed toward the arts are "not a handout," he said, but "an investment" in Philadelphia's economic future. The arts sector accounts for more than 80,000 regional jobs, including about 20,000 in the city, he said.

As noted, some aspects of the vision plan deal with what has already taken place. Steuer's office, for instance, now serves as the hub of almost all of Philadelphia's arts-related programs, including the cultural fund and the office of public art. Steuer also has sought to gain control of and systematize the idiosyncratic operations of such quasi-public entities as the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, the city's official history repository.

While the vision plan asserts that the arts are central to Philadelphia's economic future - an argument cultural and tourism officials have made regularly for several years - the task force extended that argument to the school district.

One of the plan's goals is to ensure that "all Philadelphia children have access to high-quality cultural experiences and arts education offerings in its schools."

Kluger is quick to recognize the "unprecedented financial" challenges facing the school district, but he said funding for the arts should not be automatically slashed: "Art and music are as important for a human being's self-actualization as being able to do math."

The vision plan sets a goal of increasing the city's investment in the arts from $7 million in fiscal 2010 to $20 million in fiscal 2014. That $13 million increase will bring its public spending on arts and culture up to the per-capita average of $11 found in 20 cities studied by the task force.

Currently, San Francisco leads the nation, spending $90 per capita on the arts, thanks to a dedicated hotel tax. Philadelphia spends $4.

"That's not an outrageous objective," Kluger said. "But it does require some will."