Will a new task force give arts leaders a voice in future city budgets?

City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas launches the Philadelphia Arts and Culture Task Force

6 minute read
A beneficiary of the Cultural Fund: Theatre in the X’s 2019 production of ‘The Beast of Nubia.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin.)
A beneficiary of the Cultural Fund: Theatre in the X’s 2019 production of ‘The Beast of Nubia.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin.)

The year has been bleak for the arts. Many cultural venues have been closed since March. In May, Mayor Jim Kenney proposed cutting all funding for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, a move that would be devastating to the hundreds of small organizations who operate on a shoestring at the best of times (including BSR).

The Cultural Fund is a lifeline for these artists. “As a grantee, and on the panel side, I recognized just how equitable a process it is,” said LaNeshe Miller-White of the fund’s operations. She’s the executive director of Theatre Philadelphia (the Barrymore Awards) and Theatre in the X, a program that brings theater for Black audiences and the West Philly community to Malcom X Park. “It is one the greater funders and fair funders in the city,” she continued. Then, suddenly, the money was gone.

“No to zero”

Arts groups, including Theatre in the X, launched a digital rally that said “No to zero for the arts.” The mayor’s office relented to the tune of $900,000, less than a third of the fund’s usual budget. And in early December, the announcement of City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas’s Philadelphia Arts and Culture Task Force was a surprising follow-up. He seemed an unlikely champion of the arts—as chair of the Streets and Services Committee, he had to sponsor the task force out of the Global and Creative Economy Committee, chaired by Councilmember David Oh.

According to the announcement, the new task force “will collectively work to sustain existing business, institutions and projects, incentivize new investment, and expand educational and career opportunities within a revitalized and diverse arts and culture sector in Philadelphia.” Miller-White is a member, alongside 18 others including leaders from Asian Arts Initiative, BlackStar Film Festival, Taller Puertorriqueño, and many more.

A seat at the table

Thomas admits he is more knowledgeable about sports and education than the arts. But “I appreciate what it does for the culture, and I appreciate what it has done for me,” he said. He’s a fan of spoken word, R&B, and hip hop. “When I was younger, we would do hip hop parties; we would bring out artists and they would do live painting,” he recalled. “So even someone like me—we consume a lot of what the community creates. I probably can’t even name all of them, because it is that entrenched in who we are and what we do as a city.” (Thomas also has a reminder right in his office—he noted that his community, labor, and business liaison, Carmella Green, was his childhood piano teacher.)

His experience gives him an appreciation for the arts and artists that often falls through the cracks when funds are divvied up. But it was the advocacy of Miller-White and other organizations, together with the responses City Council received when its disadvantaged communities task force heard from its arts section, that convinced Thomas. “The thing that resonated the most was [that] they felt like a lot of their issues would be solved if they actually had a seat at the table,” he said.

In a separate interview, Miller-White echoed that sentiment: “We have a direct line to Council[member] Thomas, so I think we have a seat at the table. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to having an impact in city policy, to know that we are going to create something that an actual council person will be pushing forward.” By April, task force members expect to offer a formal proposal.

Isaiah Thomas is an unexpected leader for the city’s newest task force. (Photo by Jared Piper.)
Isaiah Thomas is an unexpected leader for the city’s newest task force. (Photo by Jared Piper.)

The value of the Cultural Fund

Miller-White sees the stability of the Cultural Fund as key: “[It] is such a needed entity and has done great, great work. So what does it look like to create a system where the Cultural Fund has an autonomous budget in addition to the city funds?”

Thomas pointed out that the Cultural Fund, which makes up most of the city’s funding for the arts, is a part of the city government’s executive branch. So as a councilmember, he cannot ensure that those funds will be restored to their previous levels. But “we have an opportunity for the arts and culture community to have a relationship and some level of transparency with City Council in a way that we hadn’t had before,” he said.

Transparency was certainly lacking when the Mayor proposed draining the Cultural Fund to patch the budget, as if the arts were a luxury Philadelphia could do without. But the city’s arts sector employs more than 50,000 people and has an economic impact topping four billion dollars. It provides a major draw for the hospitality industry, which in turn attracts new residents to the energy of a vibrant city and drives the real estate and construction markets.

Hope for the next round

Thomas said that money is going to be a part of the conversation, as well as other resources, including access to city spaces. “We know that this community is going to need as much support as possible to assure an effective and safe recovery," he said. "And so we want to be a resource, based on the ideas, goals, and objectives that the task force has and communicates to us.” Thomas said he wants to be a liaison between the task force and state partners as well.

Much of the talk revolves around recovery, but Thomas was a bit cagier about immediate help to get the arts through the ongoing pandemic. “We can’t say for certain,” he said. “I have a hunch they will formally make that ask. And once that ask is formally made, it is our job, as members of council, to try our best to find and allocate resources for them, just like we’ve tried to do for other industries in the city of Philadelphia.”

Equal treatment would be a welcome change. Miller-White finds it frustrating that the arts have to prove their value over and over, but she said “it feels nice to even have the lead time, to be at the top of when budget considerations are being made. Being at the top of the conversation feels good this time around.”

The Arts and Culture Task Force will host a Zoom meeting for the community on Sunday, December 27 from 4-6pm. For more information and the meeting link, email [email protected].

Image description: A photo from an outdoor performance of The Beast of Nubia by Theatre in the X. An actor in a red and blue two-piece costume and gold collar faces away from the camera, and another actor wearing red pants, a feathered breastplate, and a cat-like mask crouches beside her. A large audience watches.

Image description: Councilmember Isaiah Thomas speaks outdoors at a podium in front of City Hall’s Octavius Catto monument. He’s wearing a suit and tie and speaking into a microphone with a serious expression.

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