Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Conundrums of Cultural Policy and Planning

As the Mayor's Cultural Advisory Council works with me on developing some concrete goals, strategies and tactics for both the short and long term (if not a full-blown cultural plan) I can't help but reflect on the challenges of the balancing act this process entails, especially in the current climate. We have a wide array of organizations truly struggling right now with their financial stability, from the Philadelphia Orchestra down to very small one-person operations in danger of literally ceasing operations because they must lay off the one paid staff member. On a pure hard-nosed economic calculation, a large organization like the Art Museum or the Orchestra has the most significant impact on the economy - attracting tourists, generating restaurant revenue, employing workers, etc. As a City looking to bolster its revenues which ultimately serves all citizens, the impact of an institution on the City's economy MUST be an important factor in evaluating City investments. On the other hand, a large City like Philadelphia requires a diverse ecosystem of arts and culture to maintain its cultural vitality and overall creative economy, and while each small organization by itself may not be a crucial component of our economy, taken collectively they are equally important. Similarly, maintaining the vitality of our cultural activity in Center City is undeniably important to our economy, yet our cultural resources must also be dispersed in a way that benefits all our citizens and all our neighborhoods. The arts are not just an economic stimulant, but a vehicle for neighborhood transformation, personal enlightenment and education.

As an Office, we also have the charge of supporting our creative economy sector - the for-profit side of the arts and culture industry, including art galleries, music clubs, design-related businesses, etc. These businesses are ALSO important to the success of a diverse and thriving creative City.  And we must also make sure we support all artistic disciplines, as well as the wide array of different cultures often served through culturally-specific arts and community-based organizations. Not to mention the necessity of working with the School District and other arts education leaders to ensure that all our young people have access to the arts in and out of school. The heritage segment of our sector has also felt especially under-resourced and under-appreciated, especially given its prominence as a community asset.

This is all by way of saying this is an immensely complex task, where there are an almost infinite array of needs and issues to be addressed, where most if not all of them are important, and where in the current economic climate the resources are not available to significantly increase our financial commitment to ANY of the competing needs.

Yet, we do have SOME tools at our disposal, we can reallocate resources, or use existing resources more wisely. Not every strategy is about money. And anything we do is an implicit or explicit statement of policy priorities, and therefore must be strategic. Perhaps a personal shortcoming of mine is always seeing all sides of an issue, seeing with clarity all the complexities, all the competing "right" answers. Biases or blinders would undoubtedly make the trade-offs involved in setting priorities easier. I don't have any easy answers, but I am glad that this group of a few dozen of Philadelphia's most valued thinkers on cultural issues are there to work with me on mapping out our future. Finally, even though the current climate makes major new initiatives that require new resources impossible, it may be an ideal time for planning, to chart our course for the future, when calmer financial seas will prevail.

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