Monday, November 15, 2010

Will New York Lose It's Primacy as a Place for Artists? Can Philly Gain?

There was a story in yesterday's Crain's New York Business called Artists Fleeing the City about the fact that the economic downturn, combined with the high cost of living in NYC, was beginning to drive artists out of the City.  Here is a key quote from the article:

Though there are no official numbers, a survey of 1,000 artists conducted in 2009 by the New York Foundation for the Arts found that more than 43% expected their annual income to drop by 26% to 50% over the next six months, and 11% believed they would have to leave New York within six months. Even more troubling, cultural boosters say, is that for the first time, artists fresh out of art schools around the country are choosing to live in nascent artist communities in regional cities like Detroit and Cleveland—which are dangling incentives to attract this group—and bypassing New York altogether.
Of course, many arts advocates and policy folks in NY are trying to figure out how to prevent this from happening. It is clear that much of New York's cultural energy - and economic activity - ultimately flows from the work of individual artists, and much would be lost if they start leaving the city, and are not replaced by a fresh new stream of young artists.
Now this is both good news and bad news for Philadelphia. Back to the article in 2005 calling Philadelphia the "sixth borough" (or actually, the "next" borough) Philadelphia has been known for being a place that has started to attract many artists who might otherwise be settling in Brooklyn, or Long Island City, or Hunts Point. Philadelphia has a truly vibrant arts scene, combined with a large stock of very affordable housing, and many old industrial buildings perfect for conversion to studios, lofts and creative manufacturing or service businesses (web design, advertising, product design, furniture manufacturing, etc.). It is happening all over our city from Crane Arts to Globe Dye Works to 2424 Studios, just to name a few. We also are frankly just 90 minutes away from NY, so meeting with dealers, or agents, or collectors is a breeze. On the performing arts side there is a large enough critical mass of theatre and dance companies and music clubs and presenters, that performing artists are finding they can also actually make a life for themselves here. The significant number of arts training colleges and universities also offer great teaching opportunities to fill out the multi-stream income that most artists need to survive. And, of course, the many arts schools also churn out a great local creative workforce, many of whoch decide when done with their training they want to stay here.
So, while not explicitly mentioned in this new article, Philadelphia is one of those places NY artists can - and do - move to. If that stream increases, we welcome it! Come on down! We've still got LOTS of room and affordable space. Now here's the cautionary "canary in the coal mine" problem - MANY other cities around the country are creating very concrete strategies to build their cultural and creative economies - and making SPECIFIC and in some cases substantial investments in attracting these workers and businesses. Cities and States are investing their business development dollars on this sector, even in these tough times. Philadelphia's creative vibrancy has largely happened without a substantial set of incentives and policies. Government policies and dollars certainly had a major role in the Avenue of the Arts, but much of the vibrancy in this sector is now spread throughout hundreds - thousands - of small creative businesses (for profit and nonprofit) that are driving this sector. And these smaller businesses are largely operating without specific governmental encouragement or invcentives. Perhaps this has helped them - I certainly now champion the medical adage of "first, do no harm" that one of the best things I can do is try to remove barriers or impediments to success and stay out of the way.
But this sector is increasingly attracted by these incentives - cultural/creative districts, subsidized live-work space for artists, developer or zoning incentives for creative businesses. If Philadelphia does not create a formal and strategic approach to strengthening our creative business climate and attracting new creative businesses and creative workers, will we risk an article like this one appearing about us a few years from now?

I think we have a great competitive advantage now, and I want Philadelphia to keep that momentum. With TEDxPhilly taking place this week, and with the imminent release of a new Creative Vitality Index study by the Office of Arts Culture and the Creative Economy, this is a good time to think about how we move forward. The creation of my Office a couple of years ago was a great first step, and we have been able to make many things happen - now what?  Look forward to the conversation!

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Random Act of Culture at Macy's in Philadelphia

This past Saturday at Noon the Opera Company of Philadelphia mounted a surprise performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah (with a lot of help from many other choruses and ensembles) in the women's shoe department at Macy's Center City, accompanied by the extraordinary Wanamaker Organ. There were over 600 participating singers! This performance was made possible by the Knight Foundation as part of their national "Random Acts of Culture" program, and coincided with the launch of the new Knight Arts Challenge Philadelphia.

Given the scale of this undertaking it was perhaps not as much of a complete surprise as many similar arts flash mobs have been. The singers perhaps even outnumbered the shoppers surprised by the "spontaneous" performance. Yet it still worked. The performance coincided with the regularly scheduled Noon organ concert, the performers were dressed in ordinary street clothes, often accompanied by children or partners. The regular patrons knew SOMETHING was going on, but really were totally unprepared for the immersive experience of being surrounded by this great piece of vocal music, with the thunderous accompaniment of the Wanamaker Organ.

A digression on the organ, since coincidentally the same week I joined a University of the Arts class led by its teacher, artist Billy Blaise Dufala (who works as an artist with his brother Steven as the Dufala Brothers), for a thorough (and thoroughly fascinating) "backstage" tour of the organ.  It consists of nearly 30,000 (!) pipes. The Wanamaker Organ - the largest of its kind in the world - began its life as a 10,000 pipe organ built for the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanaker bought it for his new Philadelphia store across from City Hall and over the years continued to add to it. Having now seen it up close, crawling through its nooks and crannies, watched the caretakers of this beast lovingly restoring its immensely complex workings, it is truly not just an extraordinary piece of machinery, but a massive work of art/craft. It is also amazing how completely it is integrated into the fabric of what is now Macy's. Pop behind a nondescript door in women's lingerie and - voila! - you are in a world of 100-year-old handmade pipes and machinery. It is a National Historic Landmark, and another of the many "hidden" Philadelphia treasures that need to be better known and supported. Bravo to Macy's for supporting and celebrating this enormous asset in its store, and to the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ for restoring and managing it.

More RAC

But back to the Messiah Flash Mob. There was great coverage of the event in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I am sure a You Tube video will appear soon. For now, you can go to this area of OCP's website for more information and still photographs. This event builds on the enormous success of the Opera Company's staging of Traviata in Reading Terminal Market in April of this year, a YouTube video that is up to NEARLY 3 MILLION views! Here is a link to the video. [And after this was originally posted, OCP posted the "official" video to YouTube.  The video is included in the OCP web page linked to above, but here it is below:]

These cultural interventions - which Knight is now investing in - are one of the great new developments in the arts, I think. This is another performing arts variation of the growing interest in sophisticated visual arts interventions that run the gamut from "street art" to temporary art projects that find their way into your everyday life, so you experience art without having to make a conscious decision to have "an arts experience." I wrote about this phenomena a few times over the past year, beginning in late 2009, here, here and here.