Friday, August 28, 2009

Getting started!

Welcome to my blog! Don't know where this will be take me, but thought it would be useful to (to me and perhaps to others) to periodically muse about the issues I am observing and grappling with.

It is clear that arts and culture as a sector is especially challenged in our difficult economy. Our share of private philanthropy, after some years of slowly creeping back up after many years of decline, now seems to be slipping back down again. many funders are seeing the arts as less important given the crisis being faced by many human services areas facing their own huge challenges.

But are we in part to blame for this situation?  Have arts organizations and arts leaders failed to make a persuasive "value proposition" case for what they do as having real social value?  Is it that the work itself is not resonating with the public as powerful and relevant?  Have we inappropriately equated "popular" with "pandering" and developed an attitude that is in fact somewhat elitist?  I am not saying all these things are true, just these are questions I ask myself, and I think we all must ask ourselves.

Here in Philadelphia, our arts culture and heritage sector is extremely robust and vital to our community. Yet, for all its success and scope, it is also fragile, and I wonder if the downturn takes too long to recover, how much of the sector will survive. I worry if the "best" organizations, the ones doing the most dynamic or relevant work will survive, or just the ones with one or more board members with deep pockets. I worry how well the sector as a whole is serving the ENTIRE community, which includes vast numbers of people in poverty, far removed (geographically and socially) from our Center City. And if we are not serving this broader population well, are we truly fulfilling our role as public charities, even if we are creating great art?  As someone who must look at the arts from a public benefit perspective, these are things that occupy my thoughts. Of course, there is the economic benefit of the arts, which ultimately benefits the entire City, as it generates tax revenue and jobs, especially in the hospitality industry.

It is looking increasingly likely that the City will get the legislation it needs from Harrisburg that will allow us to avoid the horrific cuts that would otherwise have been required. that means that funding of our cultural programs will be saved, including support for my Office, which was slated for elimination. There are so many exciting plans for the future and I am pleased it looks like we will be able to "live to fight another day."


  1. Great idea, Gary; good luck!
    I'm crossing my fingers for Harrisburg to pull through...

  2. Hey Gary;

    This is great. Hope you can keep it moving.

    Here is my take on some of the questions you pose: If we are in part to blame for our precarious fiscal condition, it would be due in large part to how constantly distracted we are by the money chase. If significant and sustainable funding could be acquired from a focus on the social values of our work, I imagine that is where our attention would be. Unfortunately, my experience has been that the funds available for social impact tend to require some kind of education, outreach or community development work above and beyond the artistic product itself. Furthermore those grants and sponsorships still tend to be one-shot deals that do little more than sweeten the pot. To land the big money, more often then not the efficacy of our work is measured from an inside perspective and the drive toward elitism is powered by grants that value artistic reputation above audience engagement. On the other hand, Philadelphia is extremely fortunate to have the wisdom of the folks at the William Penn Foundation leading the way on this issue. Because of their focus on significant general operating support based on the institutional mission of the arts organization, I think our cultural community can afford to work a little ahead of the curve.

    Margie Salvante
    Executive Director
    Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

  3. Great questions. I will ask them of myself as a local artist, wanting to be true to my artistic
    vision and relevant to a broad and diverse audience.

    Tremain Smith