“Dare to imagine” what arts funding can do

Arts advocates rally again to fight proposed cuts to the Philadelphia Cultural Fund

6 minute read
A multiracial group of 10 GPCA advocates hold signs supporting arts funding outside of Philly’s City Hall.
Patricia Wilson Aden (at right) joined GPCA supporters for an April 2022 rally in support of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. (Photo by Sabina Pierce for GPCA.)

Ah, Philadelphia: The City of … Policing? Wait. That’s not it. Unless you’re going by Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget, which would allocate $855 million for the Philadelphia Police Department. That says a lot about our city’s priorities, especially compared to the proposed $170 million for public health or $154 million for streets and sanitation—and just $3.5 million for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF).

It’s that time of year again! Our mayor looks out over the City of Brotherly Love (or is it the City of Murals? Or maybe the Birthplace of America? The first World Heritage City in the US?) and thinks, arts and culture? Who needs it?

At least, that’s how it feels.

Ready to applaud

Mayor Kenney suggested eliminating Philly’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy (and PCF with it) in his 2021 budget. Fortunately, even among the turmoil of the early pandemic, the cultural sector fought back and some funding was maintained over the following three years. The 2023 budget allocated $3.5 million to PCF, and then an additional $2 million in a mid-year transfer in December of 2022, putting the FY2023 total up to $5.5 million. That number funded grants to 275 organizations this year, and it’s the number advocates like Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (GPCA) CEO Patricia Wilson Aden were hoping to see in the mayor’s proposed FY24 budget. But it’s back down to $3.5 million.

“We applauded City Council when they allocated that extra $2 million,” Aden told BSR last week. “And we’re eager to continue applauding their commitment.” She hopes City Council, which must pass the new budget before the start of the fiscal year on Saturday, July 1, will recognize the need to support PCF with the same funding it received last year: $5.5 million.

4 dancers grouped together create flowing shapes with their arms, wearing knee-length dresses in front of a watery projection
Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers was a 2022 PCF grantee. Campbell Tosney, Keila Pérez-Vega, Sophie Malin, and Takashi Kunai, in Evalina Carbonell’s ‘Shrill.’ (Photo by Rob Li.)

“I am very comfortable making an impassioned plea,” she said. “We can’t go back.”

Why the Cultural Fund stands out

GPCA is a partner of PCF, and Aden explains why PCF is so important. First, it offers operating dollars, which are extremely hard to come by in the nonprofit world—most funding is attached to specific initiatives or projects, rather than the day-to-day existence of the organization. (BSR is a proud PCF grantee, and these operating funds are crucial to our small team and lean annual budget.)

PCF is also vital because unlike private or corporate foundations, its grants go to small and mid-size organizations across the whole city: grassroots groups embedded in our neighborhoods. In many cases, just a few thousand dollars can help keep these companies trucking for another year. More than any other slice of the budget, Aden said funding PCF is “the way that the City of Philadelphia signals its support for the arts and culture community.”

And PCF stands out because of its granting process: it’s not one leader’s decision, or an inscrutable formula. Organizations apply, and funds are distributed through a panel of peers who interact with the applicants: “The fact that this is a peer-reviewed system gives organizations confidence that this is a level playing field,” Aden said.

In profile, Davis, a Black man in striped orange shirt, clinks bottles with Gold, a white woman with a French braid & boots
InterAct Theatre Company was a 2022 PCF grantee. Akeem Davis and Hannah Gold in InterAct’s ‘Death of a Driver.’ (Photo courtesy of InterAct.)

But when that funding is on a rollercoaster year after year, it destabilizes hundreds of organizations—especially since, as Aden notes, GPCA estimates that nearly half of the cultural organizations in our region are still in “recovery mode” from the pandemic, with modified budgets and reduced programming and staff. At a Saturday, May 20, event for PCF grantees, new executive director Gabriela Sanchez affirmed her vision for PCF as a hub for community and ongoing advocacy, despite difficult times.

A $3.4 billion return on investment

Advocates like Aden point to our cultural sector’s annual $3.4 billion impact, including everything from the tax revenue of more than 37,000 jobs to the parking, restaurant, and hotel spending of arts-goers. Arts and culture aren’t amenities, she adds: they’re massive economic drivers.

But we also can’t distill the arts down to a balance sheet. When kids access the arts, their school attendance and test scores improve, setting them on course for college and a career. That’s just one way the arts are a pillar of violence prevention, and when we invest in them, “we are in the solution mode rather than the reactive mode.”

“Dare to imagine the impact on our city at large if we had the kind of public support here in Philadelphia that we see in other cities for the arts,” Aden said.

A drop in the bucket?

When Philly’s FY22 budget sent an extra $5 million for forensics tech to the Police Department, District Attorney Larry Krasner complained that it was “a drop in the bucket.” This year, as Billy Penn reports, the proposed budget would put $22.5 million toward a new forensics lab.

Philly’s cultural sector can only dream of getting a $22.5 million chunk of the city budget. “A drop in the bucket” might be a good way to describe the $5.5 million PCF is asking for, both in terms of our city’s total projected FY24 budget of about $6 billion, and in terms of the huge return on investment for each dollar we spend on the arts.

Two dancers in mid-step in an indoor space, with warm, purple-tinted lighting
Pasión y Arte was a 2022 PCF grantee. (Photo by Mike Hurwitz.)

“We believe that this is the opportunity for City Council to signal its support for everything these arts and culture organizations do for the city, not only their economic impact, but the way those organizations enrich the city and all of our residents,” Aden said.

Arts voters are watching

At a packed Thursday, March 2, mayoral forum on arts and culture at the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater, Cherelle Parker (now the Democratic nominee) said the arts were essential to her own personal and professional journey. “Arts and culture provide access to hope for young people who are born into poverty,” she said.

GPCA hosted an additional arts and culture forum on May 30, drawing more than 400 people (in-person and online), which mayoral candidates noted was one of their best-attended debate events, according to Aden. That “sent an important signal to those candidates.”

Dusk falls on a scene from the play depicting a protest with the whole cast on the green lawn. Set pieces evoke rowhouses.
Shakespeare in Clark Park was a 2022 PCF grantee. Stirringly familiar: the full cast of Shakespeare in Clark Park’s ‘The Taming!’ (Image courtesy of Shakespeare in Clark Park.)

Aden added that a GPCA survey shows “arts activists are arts voters: 98 percent of people who took our survey said they vote regularly, and are more likely to support a candidate who supports arts and culture.”

Take action now to fund the arts in 2024

As arts and culture advocates made clear during mayoral primary debates, they are hoping that the new administration will bring the Office of Arts & Culture into the mayor’s cabinet and establish dedicated funding. Right now, the Office of Arts & Culture is under the umbrella of the managing director’s office, where this budget item appears.

GPCA has an easy #fundPHLarts toolkit for anyone who wants to tell City Council that we need at least $5.5 million for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund in the next fiscal year. “Every voice counts,” Aden said. “We are all change agents.”

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