The arts sector is speaking up against the city’s proposed cutting of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. How about skipping that request and shoot for $40 million instead?
In case you haven’t heard, the $4 million budget of The Philadelphia Cultural Fund (and the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy which administers it) is about to be cut from Philadelphia’s $4.6 billion 2021 budget. Like closing libraries and pools, the arts’ budget is small and low hanging fruit, even though it serves a great deal of people and need. But the cuts are easy because even though the benefits are clear, the loss of protected city jobs are few. It is literally the opposite of cutting the fat, it is the path of least resistance—the office has no political capital to fight with. Will the story of cutting arts funding (and pools and libraries) ever not be repeated over and over? It is precisely because the sum is so small that it can easily be cut. The answer? Ask for more.
The Philadelphia Cultural Fund helps a wide array of arts organizations in the city with small grants. Yes, like other funders, the grant sizes depend too much on size of your budget and not, for example, how far an organization can stretch a dollar. Still, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund is by far the most big tent “democratic” entity in allocating its funds—limited as they are—to hundreds of organizations (349 in 2020, no one else comes close). Especially with smaller organizations, PCF dollars help spur an inordinate amount of programming by organizations throughout the city. Typically, it hands out grants in May, meaning organizations tend to use that money in the spring, summer, and fall. After a long, depressing year of this pandemic nightmare (and in the hopes a vaccine exists by then), don’t you want widespread programming throughout the city so people have something to do, a reason to stay, and a reason to come?
Faced with a big fat zero, that old $4 million dollar PCF budget looks amazing. But now might be a good time to really question that health of the city’s arts sector pre-pandemic. As someone involved in the performing arts (and whose company Automatic Arts has received small grants from the PCF for several years), I look at the trumpeted vibrancy of the city’s performing arts scene, for instance, with an enormous grain of salt. That vibrancy, to me, is only reflected in the stubborn output of the artists themselves. Stubborn because they have produced an enormous amount of work while so few were actually earning a living from being an artist or even earning anything at all from their artistic output. Creatively, in terms of ideas, talent, and experimentation, Philadelphia has been has been an exciting place to be the past 20 years. But an economically viable place to be a full time or part time artist or even something akin to a citizen-artist? Not so much, The unending, labyrinthine slog of securing funding and scratching for support—even when all your time is unpaid or severely underpaid—is a wearying lifestyle not suited for long term health for artists, organizations, or the city.
So why plead with the Mayor and city council to refund the PCF budget when it actually needs so much more? My first idea was that the pot should be doubled by the city, or by the city in conjunction with a major funding organization like William Penn Foundation matching the $4 million. But that is because I am too easily thrilled by receiving a crumb. Why make the ask so small? Let’s demand a significant number like $20 million with an increase to $40 million in 2022. In 2019, 7 million peopled visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 2019, 3.3 million people want to Yankees stadium. Arts and culture are not secondary attractions in a city—they are the attraction. We need to stop treating the Philadelphia’s artistic sector like a bunch of scrappy unpaid interns propping up this image of artistic vibrancy that puts a creative aura on every coffee shop and new housing development.
It’s perverse not to be appreciated for how much you produce with so little, but as every freelancer learns at one point (in my case it took 20 years), you are only worth what you charge. The aura of money is strong. The city’s stakeholders, and the population in general, will ultimately only value you for what you are paid—not for your social/cultural impact or even the dollars you generate for the economy in general. If the PCF budget was $40 million dollars, how can you cut something worth $40 million dollars? Too huge a blow. $4 million? Not so much.
We should ask for more.