Monday, January 4, 2010

A Tribute to Peggy Amsterdam


Last week we lost a great human being, a great local and national arts leader, a great Philadelphia region civic leader. It has made celebrating the holidays and looking forward to the new year a challenge for so many of us.

I cannot claim to have been close personal friends of Peggy's, and after her extraordinarily beautiful memorial service, I especially know that is my loss.  But I was a professional colleague and acquaintance of hers for many years, and clearly the nature of my job and hers were intimately intertwined. She was in many ways my professional partner, with the work of the Cultural Alliance complementing and enhancing the work of the City's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. A municipal agency cannot really engage in the sort of aggressive advocacy and political action that the Cultural Alliance under Peggy's leadership excelled at. And as many know, Peggy and her team tirelessly fought for the re-opening of the Office after it was closed several years ago in a previous administration.

I probably first got to know Peggy when she was directing Delaware's state arts agency. I was a program director for the New York State Council on the Arts in the late 80's and early 90's and stayed very much connected to the state arts agency world, and later when running the national Arts & Business Council, I was a frequent attender and speaker at the National Assembly of State Arts Agency  conferences.

When Arts & Business Council launched the National Arts Marketing Project in the late 90's, the Cultural Alliance - more than any other local arts entity in the nation - took the learnings of this program and transformed them into nationally-recognized and transformative initiatives: the FunGuide, Engage 2020, research. This was not just Peggy, this was also her strong staff, especially Tom Kaiden, but Peggy gave Tom the freedom to innovate, said yes to the right initiatives, and made the money materialize to turn ideas into reality. That's leadership.

When Arts & Business Council merged with Americans for the Arts in 2005 I began to work much more closely with local arts agencies, including Peggy and the Cultural Alliance. And then in the summer of 2008 Americans for the Arts held its annual convention here in Philadelphia, once again offering the opportunity for me to work closely with Peggy, who (once again with her crack team) pulled off one of the most successful conventions ever.

And of course, when I decided to come to Philadelphia to head the newly reopened Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, Peggy was right there to welcome me, advise me, encourage me. She made me feel at home right away. She helped organize a beautiful welcoming reception. With acuity and tact (and humor) she shared perceptions of people, issues, neighborhoods, skeletons in closets, etc.

Since last October, we have consulted with each other on an almost daily basis. I have served on her board, and she has served on the Mayor's Cultural Advisory Council. We have fought the battles of the arts tax and the Plan C "doomsday" budget together; we collaborated on a successful NEA stimulus grant program. And we BOTH served representing Philadelphia on the US Urban Arts Federation. When I attended the 2008 Cultural Alliance annual meeting I was blown away by the attendance of 700 arts leaders - I don't think any other local arts agency in the nation gets a turnout anywhere near this for their annual meeting. It is a visible sign of the community Peggy has helped build here.

She became for me a professional partner, a guide to the ins and outs of Phialdelphia, allowing me to make many fewer "newbie" mistakes than I otherwise would have, both most importantly she became a friend. And like those who knew her longer and more deeply than I did, I suspect over the years we will now not be able to share together, she would have become a deep, lifelong friend, the kind you can truly rely on to be there for you, because that is just the kind of person she was. Losing that opportunity is painful, but I am grateful I have had this past year and a half to work so closely with her.

I think the best tribute we can offer to Peggy would be to successfully create a dedicated regional revenue stream for the arts, a cause she fought for virtually her entire time in Philadelphia. Let's assign ourselves this task, and think of it as building a monument, not the traditional public sculpture (of which we have so many) - but a monument that will ensure the continued growth and survival of our extraordinary regional cultural sector. Now THAT'S a monument Peggy would be proud of - The Amsterdam Fund - I like the sound of it...

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