Philadelphia’s Cultural Fund: Friend of the arts, or foe?

Artful neglect: The Philadelphia Cultural Fund

6 minute read
Capoeira class at the Community Education Center, which nearly lost its funding.
Capoeira class at the Community Education Center, which nearly lost its funding.
It may be true that Philadelphia has been recognized by Frommer's as an "Art Capital," and one of the "U.S. top ten destinations for 2013." It's also true that Old City has been named one of the country's "Top 12 Art Places," and that Philadelphia was recently dubbed the nation's "dance capital" by the esteemed dancer/scholar Susan Foster.

But how, then, do you explain the city government's neglect of its only direct funding of arts and culture: the Philadelphia Cultural Fund?

The Fund was launched by Mayor Ed Rendell in 1994 as a $500,000 initiative, replacing the disparate Section 500 arts grants that had previously been distributed at the sole discretion of individual City Council members. In keeping with the egalitarian spirit of the new Cultural Fund, any bona fide Philadelphia-based arts or cultural group could apply for a grant that could be used for any legitimate expenses— no strings attached. The Fund is still run as an independent non-profit corporation, with a board consisting of mayoral, Councilmanic and arts community appointments, allocating city funds through an applications process that involves peer reviewers from the local arts community. (Full disclosure: I was a founding board member of the Cultural Fund.)

One hand giveth….

Unlike the Pew Charitable Trust and William Penn Foundation— whose elitist criteria often excluded small, middle-sized and emerging arts groups— the Cultural Fund was not intended to make artistic judgments. Most of the 247 groups funded last month (average grant: $6,626) would never have a shot with the Pews and William Penns. The recipients are groups like Anne-Marie Mulgrew's eponymous dance company, which offers free, public, site-specific performances, concerts, affordable classes, and residencies tailored to people of all ages and skill levels, without funding from a major foundation.

With Mayor Michael Nutter's support the Cultural Fund grew to $3.2 million in fiscal year 2010, but as one hand gaveth, the other returned the next year to take away almost 50 percent of the Fund's total appropriation, reducing the 2011 appropriation to its current level, at $1.84 million (of which $1.63 million allocated to groups last month). A lobbying effort is under way to restore funding to the $3.2 million level, using all the economic arguments amassed by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, like the arts' $2.8 billion impact on the region's economy, the equivalent of 30,000 full-time jobs.

But this chronic crisis in funding for the Cultural Fund also offers an opportunity to address several critical policies that could both expand financial support and ensure that the Fund maintains its original mission and special role in Philadelphia.

Why not leverage?

For one thing, the Fund— under pressure from former board members representing larger cultural organizations— was always prohibited from supplementing its appropriations with private donations, thus preventing municipal dollars from leveraging grants in the private foundation and corporate sectors. There is no good reason why an enlightened foundation should be prevented from incentivizing the city by pledging, say, $1 million to the Cultural Fund if the City matches it 2 for 1, or even 1 for 1.

The Cultural Fund wields great fund-raising potential here, because it can draw on unique strengths. No other arts-granting organization in Greater Philadelphia possesses such diversity and outreach to so many organizations.

The Cultural Fund is also virtually the only source of support for continuing arts operations (most foundation program officers these days prefer to fund special projects or performances, which they find sexier than funding basic operations).

Who needs $10,000?

The Cultural Fund can also stop funding Philadelphia's largest arts/cultural organizations— those troupes that, thanks to their full-time development staffs, enjoy ready access to national and regional foundations like the Pews and William Penns, not to mention corporations and rich donors. The Cultural Fund now doles out annual $10,000 grants to almost two dozen groups with annual budgets above $5 million— groups for whom $10,000 hardly makes a difference. One Cultural Fund board member recently acknowledged as much to me, saying these largest groups justified their continuing Cultural Fund grants as "symbolic."

I would re-allocate this quarter-million in funds to smaller groups. In lieu of those $10,000 city grants to major arts organizations, I would offer them a more valuable tool: a symbolic letter of support from the mayor or from the city's chief cultural officer, Gary Steuer, for their use in generating funding support elsewhere.

Between the reduced funding and the rising number of groups applying for support, the Cultural Fund's board has also unfortunately strayed from its original mission, employing corporate-type evaluation criteria (as opposed to artistic criteria) for grants. Thus the Cultural Fund's current evaluations use a points scale that places the greatest value on "leadership and governance," "operations and managerial capacity," and "ability to plan," as opposed to "programmatic merit and strength" and "community impact."

Slought's struggles

As one result of this policy, 53 applicants for funding— about 20 percent of the total— were rejected last year. The corporate arts mindset has found fertile grounds at the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.

Instead of insuring that all arts groups get some grant money if they're producing, the Cultural Fund is rendering management evaluations that have no place in allocating city funds. "Every small organization is vulnerable," says Aaron Levy, the brilliant director of the Slought Foundation, the avant-garde West Philadelphia storefront art presenting group. "How small organizations are structured is now a liability and a vulnerability."

Slought, despite its stellar ten-year record and international reputation, was almost defunded this year because of these criteria, as well as a negative report by a peer reviewer who, according to Levy, had never visited a grass-roots arts group before and did not know very much about his organization.

Saved by politicians

Which brings up a larger issue: the Cultural Fund's lack of professionalism. In awarding its grants, the Fund relies on 130 volunteer "peer" reviewers, many of them inexperienced and unengaged in the task of evaluating groups. The Fund's casual approach to its appeals process is suggested by the fact that only two board members attended this year's appeals session.

The Cultural Fund's distorted criteria this year also defunded the respected Community Education Center, the multi-arts center and artist incubator in Powelton Village, on grounds of alleged administrative weaknesses and lack of sustainability. That's quite a charge against an arts group that has nurtured dance, music and theater artists— especially minority artists— for 40 years on a shoestring budget.

Only a last-minute intervention from City Councilwomen Jannie Blackwell and Maria Quinones-Sanchez prevented a total defunding of the Community Education Center. Of course, this rescue was precisely the sort of political intervention that the Cultural Fund was originally designed to eliminate.

If the Fund is to fulfill its mission, it also needs a full-time professional staff, as well the marketing resources to make itself known to garner more outside support. After 20 years, the Cultural Fund continues to remain Philadelphia's best-kept secret. If it hopes to attract more funding from the city, not to mention enriching the city's cultural life, it must change its ways.

Jonathan Stein was a founding board member of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.

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