"Philadelphia Laureates': A proposal

Philadelphia Laureates:
A cultural challenge to Mayor Michael Nutter


Dear Mayor Nutter:

    Since you took office in January you’ve whipped Philadelphia into a veritable spasm of enthusiasm about possibilities for the future. In one stroke, this city could gain a reputation as a major literary center. It's hard not to imagine that you're the guy who can pull it off.

    Let's imagine a Philadelphia where the arts really matter. Let's take it as a given that we live in a town that's known worldwide for a healthy respect— no, a damn near worship— of the arts. Suppose that, when you mentioned the name of our city, instead of thinking, “Cheese steak, side of xenophobia,” people thought, “Poetry, literature, rockin' good theater, street music, first-rate fiction”? Sort of like Paris in the ’20s, but with better sanitation, right?

    What would happen then?
    —Tourism. Who wouldn't want to be here?
    — Entertainment. Creative people are attracted to creative people, no?
    —An end to the brain drain. Smart people don't leave a city that's a center of creative energy.
    —Business. The publicity would effectively extend the Chamber of Commerce's economic development budget by half.

    How do we start? Reviving the office of Arts and Culture, as you’ve done, is a good start. But how about one big symbolic, quixotic gesture? How about creating Philadelphia's Office of Laureates?

A poetry role model for kids
    Let's start with our own Poet Laureate. I don't mean some snicker-worthy honorary position. I mean something with a nice healthy, poet-sustaining stipend. M.D.-sized money (internist if not specialist). The Laureate, in his turn, or hers, would provide us with occasional public readings. Maybe she'd open the season for the Orchestra with a poem or throw out the first ball at Opening Day and follow up with a sonnet. We might expect the PL to do a few things with the schools, too. Why shouldn't our kids grow up thinking they're as entitled to poetry as anyone?

    After we get the poet thing nailed down, let's move on to a Novelist Laureate, a Composer Laureate, a Director Laureate and whichever Laureates Fate grants us. We can keep our Laureates for a year, maybe two. One of the best parts is that when they're done, they become our ex-Laureates. It's on their resumés, and it's on ours, too. Every time somebody mentions Jane so-and-so, they're likely to mention that she was Philadelphia's Something-or-Other Laureate. The other great part is that having truly creative people as part of the civic work force is good for everybody.

But how to pay for it?

    Now, all my truly civic-minded friends are wondering something like: How the hell are we going to pay for this? Putting aside the fact that an average poet would be tickled silly by a stipend that's less than what it costs to pay a City Councilman's cousin a deputy commissioner's salary, the Office of Laureates isn't going to cost us much at all. The Secret? We're not going to pay for it.

    Instead, this is an example of a great possibility for a public-private partnership. What would be easier than to ask this city’s corporate giants to put their names and money behind a high-profile, low-cost project that would generate as much publicity as a new stadium? In fact, the costs are so small compared to most sponsorships that I can imagine philanthropic and social clubs getting in on the act. The Union League sponsoring the Rhetorical Laureate? The Art Museum paying up for the Painter Laureate? Why not?

    So let the buzz begin, Mr. Mayor! I know the city is loaded with poetic talent— Lamont Steptoe and Daisy Fried come to mind immediately. Surely there must be others. The challenge is to you sir. Let's assemble a volunteer board to arrange a selection process, describe the job and start looking for funding. Let's not waste time. Wouldn’t it be awful if Camden heard about this and did it first?

To read responses, click here.
To read a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.



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