Fund The Arts

Arts Organizations Lobby for More City Funds

About 200 people gathered at City Hall on May 11 for a noontime #FundPHLArts Rally calling on the Kenney administration to invest more in the city’s nonprofit arts and cultural organizations. The city’s budget allocation for the arts had been cut last year and, after previous protests, only partially restored. Arts leaders are calling for more funding this year as nonprofit organizations struggle to survive after two years of shutdowns due to the Covid-pandemic.

Patricia Wilson Aden, CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, emceed the two-hour event and stressed the importance of the city’s support of the arts and the many challenging issues now confronting Art and cultural groups in Philadelphia. Aden ignited the crowd to chant ‘Art is Essential’ slogans to those who most need to hear it in City Hall.

Ten arts advocates spoke in between music and dance interludes during the rally. The speakers did not mince words about what’s at stake for artists and the city’s cultural life going forward.

As the Kyo Daiko drummers revved up the crowd, I spoke to City Councilmember-at-Large Derek Green about the current fight over the city’s arts funding. “Why are we cutting the arts every year?….especially when the city is about to receive 1.4 billion dollars from the American Rescue plan,” Green said. “I don’t think people fully understand the economic impact that the arts bring to Philadelphia. Not just an investment for creativity, but an investment in the financial health of Philadelphia.”

Poet Denice Frohman’s impassioned speech inspired the crowd, stating, “When we think about funding the arts this not something ‘nice’ or extra’ this is an integral part of Philadelphia,” Frohman then recited her poem ‘Petition’ about the advocacy of Philly artists representing their communities, as a platform for “the power of art and social change.”

David Acosta, director of Casa de Duende and LGTBQ art curator, stated, “the shortsighted and unacceptable budget calls for deep cuts for the arts sector of our city. We are here to say – not this time.” Drawing wide applause, he went on, “our audiences -they are us, and we are them,” noting that “our demands are just, commensurate, and reasonable given what the arts sectors contribute to the local economy.” Acosta also detailed the many challenges the arts community faced during the pandemic and what it will take to survive.

Nasheli Juliana Ortiz-González, director of Taller Puertorriqueño, told the crowd that “embracing our cultural heritage is central to our community. Having a space to learn, heal and celebrate who we are and where we are going is empowerment and growth. We are only demanding money to keep our doors open. We don’t need any saviors; we need the money to continue to create for ourselves.”

Akeil Robertson described becoming involved with the visual arts program while he was incarcerated, an experience that provided an opportunity to develop as a muralist and photographer. Robertson now works within the prison system as an art instructor.

Many of the speakers also spoke about the vital engagement of the arts programs in colleges, universities, city projects, and neighborhoods. About to graduate from Moore College of Art and founder of The Future is US Collective, Leila Islam spoke to the city’s rich cultural legacy. For her, “Art was and is transformative. I hope our city continues to invest in the next generation of artists,”

Ami Yares spoke about the commitment of the staff of his organization Buildabridge, “We deal in lives of people who join us as a lifeline…who need to engage their creative selves.” It is about “Process over product. The arts are for everyone. Essential to our lives. Money, social status, gender identity, race, and ableness should not be a factor,” 

Yares spoke to the “resilience” of cultural organizations to continue their work but added that, especially now, “We can’t rely on goodwill alone. Passion and devotion for the arts and what they can do for Philadelphia are not without a price. We can only improvise for so long. We can’t phone in our mission.”

Eric Pryor spoke about the educational reach of the arts community. “This is a pivotal moment for arts and culture in education. Our civic leaders need to put forth an additional 6.1 m. in funds for our community. So many children are not getting the arts in school or at home. We are the front lines where our children will receive the arts.” 

Pryor said student engagement in the arts nurtures “critical thinking, creative problem solving, mastering communication, and learning to work collaboratively. The arts are not extra-curricula. They are essential for the development of children.” Pryor cited a study that over 70 percent of business leaders list creative thinking as the number one skill they seek when hiring.

In an interview after the rally, Barbara Silzle, executive director of The Philadelphia Cultural Fund, which administers funds to over 250 groups every year, called for the need for transparency in the budget process. She noted that arts organizations are still waiting for money that the city council approved late last year. That was supposed to go out in March but has been held up with no explanation from the Kenney administration.

“We’re not a city agency. We are a separate nonprofit,” Silzle explained, “that for three decades has been under contract from the city to be their mechanism to support the city’s nonprofit organizations.” She added, “considering the benefits of the investment, “to me it was always underfunded considering what the arts bring to our city.”

Patricia Wilson Aden brought the rally to a close, calling for “Bolder investment in the arts.” She cites the importance of representing “the city’s vibrant diversity and arts and culture communities. We are not just a thing that is ‘nice to have’…..we are essential to this city. Let’s make some noise!”

The public can also make some noise in a virtual public forum on Tuesday, May 24, where you can testify (remotely) to City Council before they head into budget negotiations with the Administration. You must register in advance.

The speakers ~Patricia Wilson Aden, President & CEO, Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (Emcee);David Acosta, Artistic Director, Casa de Duende; Catherine M. Cahill, Chair, Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance Board of Directors; Melanie Hasan, Owner, Modest Transitions; Laila Islam, Founder, The Future is Us Collective; Nasheli Juliana Ortiz-González, Executive Director & CEO, Taller Puertorriqueño; Eric Pryor, President & CEO, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Akeil Robertson, Mural Arts Philadelphia Guild Coordinator & Staff Photographer; Paul Steinke, Executive Director, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia; Ami Yares, Executive Director, Buildabridge; Denice Frohman, activist & poet.
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