Philadelphia mayor proposes gutting city’s arts and culture office

Showing No Love

Philadelphia mayor proposes gutting city’s arts and culture office

Mural Arts Philadelphia, the nation’s largest public arts program, will be provided with reduced funding in the proposed fiscal year budget. The city’s Cultural Fund, however, would be completely gutted. (7beachbum/Flickr)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget has sent ripples of anxiety, grief, and outrage through arts and cultural institutions large and small in the City of Brotherly Love.

Faced with a $649 million shortfall resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the city, under Kenney’s proposal, would completely eliminate all $4.4 million in arts funding. The move would effectively close the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE), the city agency charged with dispersing grants to hundreds of Philadelphia arts organizations.

As reported earlier this month by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF), which provided community groups across the city with $3 million in funding this fiscal year, would also be eliminated as part of the revised budget as its support comes directly from the OACCE. The Inquirer also noted that the PCF functions as the “only such support offered by the city to its growing population of artists, performers, and arts organizations.” It awarded 349 grants last year, a record-breaking figure for the 25-year-old fund.

“Funding for the arts, special events, and non-profit support will be reduced or eliminated,” stated the budget. “The Office of Special Events, the Office of the City Representative, and the Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy will cease to exist, although some resources and functions will be retained and shifted to other departments.”

Additionally, the popular Arts in City Hall program, which showcases the work of up-and-coming artists in a high-traffic venue, would also be axed. Mural Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Arts will still receive funding although they will be allocated a lesser amount than they currently do as, per the budget, “these organizations have demonstrated outside fundraising capacity.”

The “painful”—to quote Kenney—cuts to the city’s vibrant arts and culture scene are necessary according to the mayor given that the city is legally forbidden from carrying a deficit.

“This budget pares City services down to the most essential, imposes layoffs on hundreds of workers, and reduces or eliminates some programs that are simply no longer affordable,” said Kenney in a press statement. “This is not what I want for our residents—and I understand if this leaves many of you angry. Frankly, I’m angry too. But after that anger fades, we must remember exactly what we are dealing with. What we have is both a pandemic and an economic catastrophe.”

The overall city budget, which would see a $341 million decrease overall from $5.2 billion to $4.9 billion, would ensure that services such as libraries and health and recreation centers would remain open during the coming fiscal year. Police, fire, and emergency services would also not be impacted.

In reaction to the revised budget, which will be voted on by Philadelphia City Council on July 1, a petition urging city leaders to spare the OACCE was launched earlier this month and has received north of 13,400 signatures to date.

“We understand that hard decisions needed to be made and that cut backs and program budget reductions were inevitable,” reads the petition. “However, to completely eliminate an office that supports a vital industry in the city of Philadelphia, especially one that has been hit very hard during this crisis, is short sighted and should be reversed.”

The petition goes on to note that, per statistics released by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the city’s arts and culture sector supports over 55,000 jobs and generates $4.1 billion in economic impact. “Most of this industry has been shut down during this crisis and needs support now more than ever to rebound during the economic recovery,” explained iradiophilly, the nonprofit consortium of Philadelphia area internet radio stations that launched the petition.

Philadelphia-based theater director, producer, and educator David Bradley perhaps most eloquently summed up the devastating long-term impact that shuttering and defunding the city’s crucial arts and cultural apparatuses will have in an op-ed for the Philadelphia Citizen.

“There is no question that the impact of the pandemic cuts across the city, and that widespread, painful sacrifices are in store. The city, by law, cannot operate with a deficit. There are pressing, frontline needs in social services. Keeping funding for the OACCE and PCF at current levels is likely not possible,” wrote Bradley. “But the city learned in 2008 that it’s hard to restore drastic cuts to a budget. Closing the doors on the OACCE and pulling the plug on PCF funding will make it highly unlikely they return. A budget is a philosophical document. Killing this support in total is not shared sacrifice, it’s a changed belief system. Put another way: prune a tree, it can grow back healthier; chop it down, it’s gone for good.”