Tragedy? Farce? Whatever genre might fit, it's a fact that the Philadelphia region's arts and cultural groups - which have never asked for a bailout - find themselves once again treading water in tough economic times for everyone.

They're facing an even longer wait for a regional funding plan that would provide them with only a financial cushion, not the mega-rescue sought by other industries.

Among the just-released conclusions of the Big Canvas, a months-long civic-dialogue project - run, in part, by The Inquirer - is that "this perilous economic moment is not ripe for talk of new taxes to feed an arts and culture fund."

At least some groups are doing a brisk business at the box office, as an Inquirer survey of 20 organizations last week showed. Ticket sales generally are ahead of last year, keeping spirits bright - for now.

But providing a hand up to the region's cultural assets should remain a priority: Arts groups that are the cultural lifeblood of the region were struggling to balance their budgets before bailout fever gripped the land. And yet they still are capable, as a group, of generating impressive numbers for the local economy.

With jobs on everyone's mind, cultural organizations provide work for 19,000 people, while priming the local economy with $1.3 billion in yearly spending related to the arts, including meals and lodging, and generating $158.5 million a year in state and local taxes.

Even in lean times, culture is a good, long-term investment.

As a sign of the importance of the arts, a notable array of state and local officials gave up part of their weekend on Saturday to talk up the cause. They joined 200 artists and cultural leaders for the final brainstorming session of the Big Canvas project, whose other sponsors were the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, the Lenfest Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation.

The project's aim is to determine what the public will support and develop the "raw material for a strategy" to boost the arts, to use the words of the Big Canvas coordinator, Chris Satullo, a former Inquirer editor who is now WHYY's executive director of news and civic dialogue.

Judging from the Big Canvas, such a strategy should include regional cooperation and collaboration - on such things as Web 2.0 promotion of the arts. Down the road, there could be support for an arts fund, but it must be one that is regional and diverse.

The next step is for local cultural leaders to settle on a pitch that's likely to sell Harrisburg on a regional arts plan. Toward that end, they need to heed the advice of state Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery), a conference attendee, who urged that arts and cultural groups develop a single agenda.

After years of arts leaders auditioning various funding ideas, such a strategy is long overdue.