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Will the city's arts scene get a mayor who cares?

When it comes to insuring a healthy future for arts and culture in Philadelphia, does it really matter who becomes the next mayor?

Since part of Broad Street became the "Avenue of the Arts," Center City has become a boomtown, its vibrant street life and desirable real estate in large part a consequence of arts pioneers taking a chance on new facilities and expanded missions. Yet, even as the city's riches have grown, support for arts and culture groups has not kept pace. (Michael Perez / File Photograph)
Since part of Broad Street became the "Avenue of the Arts," Center City has become a boomtown, its vibrant street life and desirable real estate in large part a consequence of arts pioneers taking a chance on new facilities and expanded missions. Yet, even as the city's riches have grown, support for arts and culture groups has not kept pace. (Michael Perez / File Photograph)Read more

When it comes to insuring a healthy future for arts and culture in Philadelphia, does it really matter who becomes the next mayor?

The answer is important because, like a prospector who discovers a gold mine then watches others pull riches from it, the Philadelphia arts and culture community has been looking around and wondering when its turn will come.

Center City is a boomtown, its vibrant street life and desirable real estate in large part a consequence of arts pioneers taking a chance on new facilities and expanded missions more than two decades ago. Yet even as the city's riches have grown, support for arts and culture groups has not kept pace. Many are struggling. A few, such as Dance/USA Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Singers, are folding.

Attempts to establish a dedicated public funding source for arts groups have been thwarted, while the plight of pensions and schools looms large. Even the staunchest arts supporters pondering a new source of revenue can see what they're up against.

"How can we approach any of these questions, given that the city has essentially no money and its pension is underfunded by billions?" asks Richard Vague, the Philadelphia investor and president of the FringeArts board.

But approach these questions the arts community must - survival depends on it - and the city's arts leadership is feeling frustration with the candidates as precious time slips away before the May 19 primary.

Candidates' positions range from Doug Oliver's "round it up" program - ask customers to contribute change from purchases to boost the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, and possibly restrict its funding to institutions with at least a 25 percent "economically disadvantaged" audience - to Anthony Hardy Williams' pledge to secure a dedicated revenue stream for the arts and culture sector. The city's current arts spending totals $7.5 million, for everything from public libraries to repairs to the Please Touch Museum's dome.

Many left an April 22 arts forum with the seven candidates feeling deflated by the wan answers.

"The candidates didn't really have positions or policies on the arts. They were vague. Their collective knowledge of arts education was pathetic," said Beth-Ellen Kroop, a longtime arts and political consultant who worked with Frank Rizzo on his 1987 mayoral campaign. "They generally agreed that dedicated regional funding for the arts was a good thing."

But does it matter what the candidates say? Can a mayor really create a more hospitable environment for arts and culture?

Actually, yes. Mayor Nutter reestablished the city's moribund Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. Ed Rendell and Marjorie O. Rendell were tireless fund-raisers for various arts projects, among them the Kimmel Center and the Avenue of the Arts. John Street took on $68.6 million in bond debt to pay for badly needed maintenance and renovations to arts facilities.

"Being the lead cheerleader, supporter and rainmaker is critical, as well as having an accessible administration who are involved in the cultural life of the city," says Cathryn Coate, former head of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (GPCA), who was key in getting Rendell interested in the arts.

"A good mayor can create an atmosphere where a kid from anywhere in Philadelphia feels welcome and safe in any museum or theater - and knows how to get there." Coate says. "Celebrating our artists the way we celebrate our sports heroes is another way to provide this kind of leadership. We have a lot of Mo'nes out there."

Still, without any help from the mayor's office, the arts community has some well-developed ideas about what it needs if it is to continue as an economic engine that contributes $3.3 billion to the region's economy each year, according to GPCA. And the next mayor would be wise to heed them, lest the sector - and the jobs and tax revenue it generates - wither.

"We are begging, borrowing and stealing all the time," says John Jarboe, artistic director of Bearded Ladies Cabaret. "Even the larger institutions in town are struggling, especially since the major foundations . . . have shifted their priorities."

"I just don't buy the argument that there's no money," says Leslie Anne Miller, a philanthropist and member of the board of directors of the Free Library of Philadelphia. "Money can always be found when something is deemed a priority, when it is important to the leadership.

"Clearly, there must be a champion. . . . And it's got to be somebody who is going to involve the inner circle - in the budgeting process, in health and welfare, and the decisions on schools. These are overlapping areas, they intersect with the arts."

How much of Nutter's arts agenda has he accomplished in two terms? Much of it, says Joseph H. Kluger, chair of the Mayor's Cultural Advisory Council. Still, arts leaders have had to lobby continually to get even the same funding each year for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. It is currently $3.14 million; Nutter has proposed cutting that to $1.8 million.

"The bad news is that because of the city's challenging finances - and, frankly, also political resistance in Harrisburg and City Council - a number of Mayor Nutter's initiatives may not be achieved during his tenure," Kluger says.

Speaking not for Nutter but as a longtime arts administrator, Kluger says the next mayor should build on Nutter's unfinished business with a plan providing more public support to arts groups while beefing up education. Such a plan would:

Require the Philadelphia School District to assign a full-time music and art teacher to every school; establish art and music as core curriculum elements, not merely as extra-curricular activities; expand arts education offerings in schools through curriculum-based partnerships with nonprofit arts and culture organizations.

Modify the City Charter to make the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and the chief cultural officer permanent government components.

Amend the Percent for Art program's mandate to read "at least one percent" instead of "up to one percent" and have it apply - as a requirement, not an option - to the full cost of projects funded by the city and/or on city-owned land.

Establish a dedicated source of revenue (not subject to annual appropriation) to increase the total annual city investment in arts, culture and the creative economy from $7.5 million to $37.5 million.

If Philadelphia arts leaders have developed any kind of collective manifesto, it contains these ideas in one form or another. But public money for the arts has been a wish-list item for decades. Kluger proposes that half of one percent of the eight percent city sales tax go to a "quality of life" fund, generating an estimated $75 million annually, half to augment the city's budget for parks and libraries, and half toward arts and culture organizations.

If governmental support is lagging, so is corporate support. Arts groups here only get about two percent of their revenues from corporations, while the national average is eight percent, says Karin Copeland, executive director of the Arts + Business Council of Greater Philadelphia, citing a GPCA study.

"Our cultural community is one of the reasons people are moving into or back to the city, but these organizations need support from the community to be successful," Copeland says.

Philadelphia has an arts scene envied by many other cities, but, argues GPCA, many other cities have something our town does not: a cohesive cultural plan. New York and Boston are working on such plans; Chicago, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Denver, and San Francisco, along with Portland, Ore., Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas, already have plans. For better or worse, Philadelphia's arts scene has developed more organically.

A cultural planning process overseen by the city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, says Coate, could cultivate "a grassroots effort involving all stakeholders as opposed to 'policies' developed and advanced by the foundation community. Foundations seem more concerned with how to fund what they want or not fund what they don't want, without being accused of funding what they want or not funding what they don't want. So they do massive studies to prove to themselves that they can do whatever they want to do."

But it's not just foundations that push agendas. It seems clear to many that if the arts are to receive more public funding, they may have to give something in return. Some see that as arts groups stepping into public schools to take on aspects of the arts education curriculum that has been slashed.

Temple University's Center on Regional Politics is considering overseeing a conversation and report on the idea of a dedicated funding source, and its director, Joseph P. McLaughlin Jr., sees the project as perhaps taking on some of the same contours as discussions about unfunded pension obligations.

"There are going to be a lot of questions about, if you do get dedicated funding, that you just don't subsidize an oversupply of venues or inefficient distribution of venues," he says, "but that there is a solution if people are going to commit resources."

If arts leaders had the next mayor's ear

Catherine M. Cahill, president/

CEO, Mann

Center for the Performing Arts.

The city must set a realistic cultural policy and funding plan that better aligns its resources to its own city-owned cultural buildings. This includes maintenance and operating support.

Further, with each new capital dollar provided, an ongoing annual maintenance fund tied to cost-of-living adjustments must be linked to such investment. It's one thing to build it, another to maintain and operate it.

 Valerie V. Gay, executive director of Art Sanctuary.

I question if this robust and vibrant [arts] industry has made any headway into all neighborhoods within the city, and I fear that yet another "divide" will soon become wider between the educated/more affluent and the non-educated/lower economic communities. So I would like the next mayor to explore the apprenticeship model that is sweeping the nation and apply it to arts and culture. . . . An apprenticeship program could become a tangible tool to create economic opportunities across all sectors of the city.

Richard Vague, president of FringeArts, managing partner, Gabriel Investments.  We can't keep the best minds in Philadelphia . . . if we don't have world-class culture. It's not a luxury, it's a necessity. When you talk about incubating art, you're not talking about huge sums of money. There are so many needs and resources are so scarce, not just in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania but across the U.S and Europe and all over the world. . . . But if I set that aside and just think about the future, yes, a dedicated source of funding would be a wonderful thing.

Elizabeth Grimaldi, executive director, Fleisher Art Memorial.

I'd ask the next mayor to pay attention to policies that support mixed-income, diverse neighborhoods. Whoever takes office next needs to make sure these policies - such as the Department of Commerce's HomeBuyNow program - take into account independent artists, not just businesses and institutions, so that artists have access to affordable housing and workspace in neighborhoods throughout the city.

Karin Copeland, executive director, Arts + Business Council of Greater Philadelphia. The next mayor should embrace the creative economy and claim Philadelphia's birthright as a center of innovation, a city that welcomes "makers" of every stripe.

The creative sector includes many subsets of individuals and organizations, representing both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises, as well as newer models such as B corporations [for-profit corporations that create benefit to society]. All of these groups contribute to our economy, to our quality of life and to the attractiveness of Philadelphia as a place to live, work, learn and play.