Go Deeper

Express yourself: Philly’s creative economy is on the rise

Posted August 4th, 2008

Mayor Nutter, the leaders of Great Expectations, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, and thousands of citizens across the region are putting their heads together this year to figure out how we can improve funding for and participation in the arts in Philadelphia. Here are a few items on what’s been happening this summer:

1. The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy is back in action!

2. How can we support and improve arts participation in Philadelphia? Citizens are putting in their two cents.Gary Steuer will lead the new and improved Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy

Mayor Michael Nutter recently signed an executive order to re-establish the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, which closed due to a crippling budget cut in 2004. Gary Steuer, former Vice President of the New York based non-profit Americans for the Arts, was appointed as Chief Cultural Officer. The main goals of the Office are to expand arts education for young people, oversee all of the city’s arts programs, and create better access to the arts in general for both residents and visitors to Philadelphia. The Office looks to support the development of the city’s arts and culture scene by promoting both public and private investment in the creative economy sector. The executive order also re-instated the Cultural Advisory Council, which will serve to advise the Mayor and administration officials on issues relating to arts and culture.

Steuer is quite welcome as the leader of this operation. Mayor Nutter was quoted saying that [Steuer’s] “experience both as an arts manager and as an arts advocate will give him a unique perspective on how to best grow the arts community – an important step to creating a healthier and more vibrant Philadelphia.” Steuer, who begins his formal duties in October, stresses the significance of incorporating the arts into plans for the city. Steuer says that “with the growing recognition of the importance of the arts in workforce development, business attraction and retention, community revitalization, civic engagement, and tourism, it is more important than ever that cities integrate the arts into City programs and policies.” We certainly hope that this marks a first step in making these goals come to fruition in Philadelphia.

The Big Canvas: Citizen Forums on the Arts

Last week, Festival Development Director Danielle Hoffman and I attended a citizen forum on culture and the arts in Philadelphia as part of The Big Canvas, which falls under the umbrella of Great Expectations, a project that engage citizens in discussions on how to improve our city. Great Expectations is a collaborative effort of the Penn Project on Civic Engagement, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Lenfest Foundation (read more about this here). We were among around 150 other Philadelphians who had decided to come and participate in this interactive discussion about culture and the arts in our region.

After brief introductions from Harris Sokoloff, of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, and Inquirer columnist Chris Satullo, we broke into small groups and delved into a series of questions about culture and the arts in our region. All eight members of my group were female; three were from foreign countries. All of us were involved in the arts in some way, whether through community organizations, arts education, arts administration, or as artists. Collectively, we represented Center City, Havertown, Logan, Northeast Philly, Northern Liberties, and West Philly. Our moderators asked us a few questions to get us started:

Who uses arts and culture, and for what uses?

What value do arts and culture bring (or, what values do they uphold) for individuals, families and communities?

What obstacles or barriers get in the way of those uses and those values?

Then, they split us into smaller groups and gave us a task (and a hypothetical dream come true):

If there suddenly materialized a $60 million a year fund to support arts and culture, what would you spend it on?

Here are some ideas that our group came up with:

1. A massive, city-wide marketing outreach program that would be run by an independent group that could do comprehensive research to figure out how to reach out to a broad range of Philadelphians, to increase awareness about all kinds of arts and culture events around the city.

2. An expansion of the office of arts and culture—putting smaller satellite offices in different neighborhoods where artists/arts organizations could connect with each other, get advice on grant-seeking, city permits, etc. A resource center for artists and for community members/leaders to see what’s going on with the arts in their area.

3. A cultural passport that would allow families/individuals free transit from SEPTA and free admission to cultural events.

4. Funding for arts programs in public schools.

5. Change tax laws to make it easier for artists to live and work in the city. Eliminate wage tax for artists.

6. Create artist co-ops where artists can rent, inhabit, and maintain warehouse spaces for cheap. Design this program so that these co-ops could have non-profit status.

We reconvened. After we had some time to discuss our ideas, our moderators reminded us of the realities of government—sooner or later, funding runs out. They asked:

What other issues that matter a lot would, in your mind, compete with arts and culture for your tax dollar?
We agreed that funding for improving the economy, education on the whole, safety, and transportation would probably take priority over funding for improving the arts in our region.

Their last question left us with some hope. They asked:

To which of these issues do you see arts and culture being complementary? In other words, which issues also get addressed when you boost arts and culture?

Economy: it has been statistically proven that a strong arts community in any city will engender economic strength for that city; the presence of artists and arts organizations in a neighborhood will often lay the groundwork for the establishment of new businesses, and the subsequent development of new real estate in that area. If you’ve visited Northern Liberties once or twice over the last ten years, you know what we mean.

Education: our group agreed that the city needs to prioritize arts programs in public schools, regardless of where the funding for these programs comes from. Those members of our group who work in education pointed out that arts education is proven to improve learning skills in many academic areas. Therefore, increasing funding for the arts in schools would improve education overall.

In the fall, the leaders of Great Expectations and The Big Canvas will convene and hold another citizen forum where citizens will be asked to discuss and then vote on the many ideas for what our region could do with sixty million dollars worth of arts and culture funding each year. Project leaders will present the four most popular (and most sound) ideas to Mayor Nutter, city council, and county councils throughout the five counties, encouraging these lawmakers to consider citizen interests and goals as they seek to improve arts and culture in our region. Sound interesting? Learn more at