When the news broke on May 1 that Mayor Kenney is responding to the COVID budget crisis by slashing the city’s arts funding—something no other major city in the country has contemplated doing—it was a massive blow to our community. Now, Philly Culture United is fighting back.
At the time, we were rounding almost two months of pandemic lockdown, with claustrophobic Philadelphians desperate for a distraction from the president’s bizarre, fallacious coronavirus updates. Artists in town have been rallying to combat the gloom—only to hear that the guillotine was falling on the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, which would devastate the operating budgets of hundreds of Philly nonprofits (including BSR).
Philly artists haven’t wasted time weeping and gnashing their teeth. For many in the creative sector, resistance is a state of being.
Philly Culture United, an action campaign, arose to fight the cuts before a preliminary budget vote was taken by Philadelphia City Council on Thursday, June 18. Councilmembers will have to decide if they’re willing to tear what little remains away from a community already devastated by the closing of arts and culture venues. The council’s final vote will be on June 25.
Some impressive people are supporting the campaign and recording statements to persuade councilmembers: Dyana Williams (cofounder of Black Music Month), Joan Myers Brown (founder of PHILADANCO), and award-winning musical artists including DJ Jazzy Jeff, Aloe Blacc, A-Trak, and James Poyser of The Roots. Many other lesser-known artists of all stripes have recorded video testimonials making their cases to keep funding the arts.
“Don’t take arts and culture away”
“We’ve already taken music out of the schools. If we take it out of the community too many of the neighborhoods that are served by that arts programming won’t be able to access the arts, the way that others do,” says bassist and Jazz Philadelphia president Gerald Veasley, a supporter of the campaign. “It’s an equity issue.… My feeling about the mayor is that he was reaching for the low-hanging fruit. Our job is to say no.”
When she first read about the proposed cuts in an Inquirer story, says publicist Aalyah Duncan, the coordinator of this effort, “I was very shocked. I started to make some phone calls … once we launched, it took off.” She says positive energy is growing, and while cuts may be inevitable, “we just want the mayor and city officials to not defund. Don’t take the arts and culture away.... [There are] so many ways money could be reallocated.”
Wrong on so many levels
Trying to keep up with the speed of the news and decision-making these days is exhausting. Everyone is scrambling to survive this pandemic, which ripped open the inequities that have been plaguing America all along. An existential pain troubles our days when we have to keep a distance from the people we love, communicate through grainy Zoom screens, and just dream for live music experienced together in a club, a concert hall, or a community center.
What Mayor Kenney wants to do is wrong on so many levels, especially when compared to the obscene amounts of money being dedicated to the police department (a pledge from councilmembers not to increase the police budget from its previous level doesn’t go far enough). Especially since dollars from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund directly support many of Philly’s most marginalized artists and communities, this is a social-justice issue inextricably tied to a nationwide movement for Black lives.
Call or write your councilmember today (find yours here) and tell him or her how you feel about arts and culture, what it means to you and your loved ones, and what you think of a Philadelphia that refuses to support the arts. To quote Veasley’s June 9 testimony to City Council, when he repeated a persistent phrase like a basso ostinato, “We need more art, not less.”
Visit Philly Culture United for steps you can take before City Council decides the fate of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.
UPDATE: June 18, 2020. In a surprise late-night session on June 17, City Council held a preliminary vote on a budget that would restore $1 million to the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and $350,000 for the African American Museum in Philadelphia. You can still let City Council know that you support keeping the Cultural Fund alive, ahead of a final vote next week.