The Mayoral Forum on the Performing Arts and Cultural Economy

Will Philly’s next mayor fund arts and culture?

6 minute read
The moderators and 9 candidates, standing at individual black podiums in a slightly curved line on the Kimmel stage.
From left, moderators Jenny DeHuff and Ari Mittleman, and candidates Jeff Brown, James DeLeon, Allan Domb, Derek Green, Helen Gym, David Oh, Cherelle Parker, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, and Rebecca Rhynhart. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

On Thursday night, nine candidates running to be Philly’s 100th mayor took to the Kimmel Center stage for a Mayoral Forum on the Performing Arts and Cultural Economy, hosted by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc. In the audience were representatives of the American Federation of Musicians, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden (who received glowing praise from many candidates), and other community leaders and constituents.

Moderators Jenny DeHuff (editor-in-chief of City & State PA) and Ari Mittleman (host of the Pennsylvania Kitchen Table Politics podcast) started by asking candidates for their favorite Philly artist, drawing answers like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Jerry Blavat, and Patti LaBelle.

The number-one issue?

Many of the candidates prioritized gun violence and public safety in their opening statements and throughout the evening. Cherelle Parker said that the benefit of our arts and culture economy “does not flow if our city is not safe.” Derek Green called violence Philly’s number-one issue, and said that people feel frightened to come to venues like the Kimmel. David Oh and Allan Domb also repeatedly emphasized the need for safety in public spaces.

But the arts aren’t just something we can plug in once we get gun violence under control. Fortunately, many candidates noted the importance of arts in violence prevention. Parker touted the “problem-solving power” of the arts. Jeff Brown noted that arts involvement is an important career-training option, and Green added that arts exposure builds creativity and an entrepreneurial drive. And Parker, more than any other candidate, demonstrated how exposure to the arts as a youngster, particularly Black women’s literature, made her into the person she is today: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Candidates also discussed the role of the arts in healing from violence, with Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Rebecca Rhynhart, and Oh all mentioning the value of arts in overcoming trauma. Green said that violence, homelessness, and hunger are “dehumanizing,” but that the arts can help reverse that damage.

Plans for arts funding

Candidates initially seemed confused and hesitant when moderators asked them to raise their hands if they would advocate a dedicated funding stream for the arts—Philly is behind many other major cities on this. Quiñones-Sánchez immediately wanted to clarify the method of funding.

They all got a chance to elaborate. Oh promised to create a $40 million “Arts Recovery Fund,” and said that arts funding should target for-profit institutions as well as non-profits. Green emphasized his past fight against Philadelphia Cultural Fund cuts (BSR is a PCF recipient) and suggested the amusement tax as a likely source for arts funding.

“I pledge to be the arts mayor,” Helen Gym said, suggesting an expansion of the hotel tax to support the arts. Domb promised to channel Ed Rendell, calling the arts “a huge engine for the city” and celebrating the sector as a great return on investment, with an annual impact topping $3 billion, including associated hospitality and restaurant spending, plus thousands of jobs. James DeLeon suggested updated towing regulations as a source for arts funding.

Brown promised to install a “huge force of grant-writers,” and Rhynhart called the arts “a human necessity” that we must “prioritize” in the budget, instead of scraping up funds year by year. Green insisted he’d make the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy (OACCE, which Mayor Kenney tried to eliminate in his 2021 budget proposal) a permanent entity, and Domb promised to support the arts through the city’s general fund.

Each candidate promised to bring OACCE into the cabinet. Rhynhart quickly promised a deputy mayor for arts and culture; Brown guaranteed a “deputy mayor of arts, culture, and fun.”

What qualities will candidates look for when hiring an OACCE leader? Green wants “someone who does not believe in silos.” Gym added they must bring “joy” to the job. DeLeon intoned that they should “not be a backstabber.” Domb said he wants to work 18-hour days to fill his own arts deputy role.

Ready for a crowd?

The moderators also pressed candidates on their plans for 2026, which will see the MLB All-Star Game, the World Cup, and the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, projected to draw hundreds of thousands of tourists.

Green promised to tap into a nationwide network of mayors to prep. Domb said he’d reach out to past mayors who have already handled major events, like the papal visit. DeLeon promised funding to the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors’ Bureau for an international ad campaign. Rhynhart and Brown promised to be Philly’s “cheerleader.”

Parker suggested additional neighborhood police presence. Oh called for SEPTA upgrades. Quiñones-Sánchez said we need to draw these visitors into city neighborhoods they wouldn’t otherwise visit, and Gym said that all of Philly’s own population should also be able to enjoy these celebrations.

Art in education

On the topic of art education, many candidates pointed to ongoing rampant inequity in Philly schools. Gym called arts education her “passion.” Parker called for “educational opportunities” year-round because we’re not a society of farmers anymore; Oh pushed investment in libraries. Quiñones-Sánchez said youngsters need to see art in a broader community context, and we can fight inequity at school by bringing all students to experience major Philly arts venues, which Domb touted as well, alongside the arts’ role in improving grades and attendance, and reducing drop-out rates. Brown promised to make the arts mandatory in K-12. Rhynhart said she’ll pursue more private and foundation funding for art programs in schools.

Missed opportunities

Questions on councilmanic prerogative, the wage tax, and a proposed subway line on the Roosevelt Boulevard corridor (especially with only 15 seconds to respond) felt strange for an arts forum. Land use, tax policy, and transit are important topics that deserve their own sessions.

This time at the Kimmel could have been better spent spotlighting disability access as a cultural issue—despite every third word of the debate being “diversity” or “equity,” disability wasn’t mentioned once, beyond Brown’s worry about “handicapped” people losing their homes to high real-estate taxes, and nods to trauma and mental health.

Rhynhart mentioned Philly’s immigrant community as a point of pride, but otherwise, there was very little dialogue about this aspect of our city. A more consistently culture-focused debate also could have asked if or how the candidates will fight a burgeoning national wave of educational fearmongering and censorship, including bans on books and entire fields of study about race, gender, and LGBTQ stories—a worthy inquiry in a region famously packed with universities.

But there’s only so much you can cover with nine would-be mayors in 90 minutes, and this tightly moderated debate saw each candidate fighting to prove that arts and culture will be an important part of their platform. We’ll certainly be watching.

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