Artists Rally to Urge Kenney Not to Annihilate Arts. Again.

by J.M. Rizzo
Featured image by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash

In December of 2020, the arts magazine Hyperallergic released its annual list of “the 20 Most Powerless People in the Art World.” The list typically highlights provocative artists subjected to censorship or thrown in jail by repressive regimes abroad and calls attention to the plight of the poorly paid artworkers—museum security guards, art handlers—doing the industry’s grunt work. Number three on the 2020 list was not a person, but rather “Philadelphia’s Arts Scene.”

How did an entire city come to earn this dubious distinction? In May of 2020, staring down the vast budget deficit brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic’s cascading crises, Mayor Jim Kenney introduced a revised 2021 budget that slashed funding for Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy (OACCE). The cuts wiped out the $3 million Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF) administered by the office. Most PCF grants go to support small, community-focused arts organizations in neighborhoods far from the city’s marquee cultural institutions. Groups that depend on PCF grants include, for example, Taller Puertorriqueño in North Philadelphia, Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture in West Philadelphia, and the Colored Girls Museum in Germantown. Many of the direct beneficiaries of these grants are artists of color and artists making work explicitly addressing racial and economic injustice.

The city’s artists responded quickly. Light Thief Productions (a live, film, and digital event production company) and Power Street Theatre (a multicultural collective of theater artists) organized a Digital Rally for the Arts in June 2020. Over twenty-four hours spread over two days, artists gathered online to voice their opposition to the cuts by sharing testimonials and performances. After that rally about a third of the PCF was restored. Philadelphia’s art scene, it turns out, is not altogether powerless.

The austerity measures taken by the city for 2021 could have been much worse. While OACCE has technically been eliminated as a standalone office, it was not completely shuttered, as has been widely (and wrongly) reported. Instead, OACCE has been absorbed into the Managing Director’s Office, said OACCE’s Community Engagement Manager Carrie Leibrand. The city’s final approved 2021 budget set aside $1.77 million for OACCE, down from $4 million. This included funds to support four staff members, down from the nine employed by the office in 2020, a $1 million allocation to the PCF, and $350,000 allocated to the African American Museum of Philadelphia. Still, between the budget cuts and COVID-related restrictions on events, OACCE has had to suspend many of the programs it once sponsored. “For example,” Leibrand said, “OACCE supported 89 Neighborhood Arts Programs in fiscal year 2019, 91 in fiscal year 2020 and 0 in fiscal year 2021 to date.” Also known as Culture in Neighborhoods, these programs brought free performances and art classes to underserved neighborhoods. OACCE hopes to be able to revive them once gathering in congregate settings is deemed safe again.

This year, artists knew better than to wait and react to Kenney’s proposal for 2022. LaNeshe Miller-White, James Jackson, Jose Alicea, Asaki Kuruma, Gabriela Sanchez, and Erin Ortiz—community leaders representing a range of arts organizations—enlisted dozens of speakers to insist that Philadelphia fund the arts at a preemptive rally held virtually on February 9 and 10. By getting out in front of the city before it could propose annihilating the arts again, the organizers were able to make bolder demands—many rally participants echoed the organizers’ call for the proportion of the city’s total budget devoted to the arts to be increased to one percent, well above what it was even before the pandemic.

While the organizers were right, of course, to hold this event online rather than putting people’s health at risk by encouraging them to gather in shared physical space, a digital rally is inferior to an in-person rally in just about every way. It is far less likely that unsuspecting passersby will stumble upon a digital rally than one occupying a public square. For those in attendance, sitting alone staring at a screen, it can be difficult to feel the same strength in numbers that comes from standing with a crowd and lifting your voice in unison with a hundred others. Even so, while the digital rally may have lacked something in galvanizing force, the form gave speakers access to an intimacy that proved to have its own kind of quiet power.

Rather than shouting slogans into a megaphone, many speakers shared personal stories about how they came to find a home in the arts. Percussionist Karen Smith recalled taking refuge in an ad hoc arts program in her neighborhood church basement as a child when it was too dangerous to go to her local park. Cinder Kuss of Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists described learning to embrace their Korean heritage after an alienating childhood by discovering the theater. “I don’t think I’m going to ‘make it,’” they said, invoking the proverbial fame and fortune that non-artists might assume motivates creative labor, “but that’s not what’s important to me now. What’s important to me is the feeling of freedom and lack of self-judgment that I feel onstage.” For some, being an artist is a “profession,” or as close to one as it is possible to get in a field that has suffered such profound public disinvestment for so long. For many, however, including many of the rally speakers, being an artist is both less and more than a way to earn a living—being an artist is a lifeline.

Some speakers pointed out that funding the cultural sector makes good economic sense—the arts are a $4.1 billion economic engine for Philadelphia. But even those artists among the speakers whose creative work has brought a measure of material success spoke about the importance of art as a sustaining personal or communal practice. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes used her allotted time to lead a “rewriting workshop.” An audience member asked when in the writing process was the right time to solicit feedback from experts in the field. “As late as possible,” Hudes replied. Theater artists, she reflected, have perhaps become overly dependent on “notes,” on suggestions from people with an interest in making a piece of dramatic writing a market-friendly product. Hudes pushed back against this tendency, urging aspiring playwrights to recognize their own innate expertise. “You be the critic of your own work,” she said.

This inclusive, democratic approach to artmaking was a recurring theme throughout the rally. “Everyone has the potential to be an artist,” organizer Gabriela Sanchez trumpeted, echoing the great German sculptor and performance artist Joseph Beuys, who believed that art had a unique role to play in the spiritual regeneration of sick and broken societies. Many speakers described how important art had been to their communities as they attempted to heal from the traumas of the past year—the widespread suffering and death brought about by COVID-19 and the federal government’s inept response, the police killings of one Black American after another spurring uprisings and vicious backlash from police, the Confederate flag flying in the U.S. Capitol during an attempted insurrection.

Between the speeches, budget discussions, and a virtual roundtable with sympathetic City Councilmembers, artists shared their work, giving us a taste of what we would be missing if the city made the mistake of defunding the arts again. Some, like Silvana Cardell of Cardell Dance Theater played ravishing video showcasing the full-scale performances they used to be able to make in theaters. Some played guitar and sang, like 20-year-old Scarlet Cimillo, whose startlingly mournful voice recalled Amy Winehouse. Some even invited the audience to participate in the performance, like an effervescent Taylor J. Mitchell, who taught everyone a Tik Tok dance to lift spirits during afternoon breaks.

Joyful as many of them were, taken together, the rally performances exuded a kind of collective loneliness, a longing to be united in shared space, to dance together, breathing the same air without fear. The city cannot by itself control all the factors that have driven artists into isolation over the past year, but it can control its budget, and it can make Philadelphia a more hospitable place for the art and artists of the future. As Cardell said, “the question for us is, do they want us here or not?”

One performance consisted of a monologue delivered by a fictional employee of OACCE played by Minou Pourshariati speaking to us from the year 2071. Because the laws of time travel forbid it, the employee is prohibited from giving any direct advice to us, her ancestors. Instead, she offers a simple description of her day, a suggestion of what the future could be if artists worked together to build the world they wanted.

Today was Friday, she tells us, the first day of the weekend. She got up and biked into Center City. “Since they banned cars there a decade ago,” she says, “it’s been one of my favorite places to take a spin.” She gets breakfast at a farm stand run by a friend who organized a bunch of vacant lot takeovers up in Kensington back in the 2030s. “It was apparently a pretty big fight to keep them, but now there’s a farm or a garden on pretty much every block,” she says. After that is rehearsal. “I’m playing in the band for this dance show happening in one of the skyscraper shells that got converted into art and community spaces last year,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe how much space there is in those things once the cubicles and the white supremacy got knocked out.” The dance company is new, made up of recent college graduates taking advantage of a program that gives artists just starting out a budget from the city and access to space for an entire year. “They make whatever they want,” she says. Later, she rides the elevator up to the top of the skyscraper and takes in the view of a street festival on Broad Street with her new “eye enhancements.” It’s a beautiful day.

In this “mundane” fantasied future of abundance, there is plenty of everything—green space, nourishing food, fresh air, advanced medical care, time and resources for artmaking. This was just one of many visions for Philadelphia given expression by the Digital Rally artists. Visions like these make the strongest case for funding the arts—artists help us imagine the futures we deserve even after the world as it is has done its best to destroy the part of us that dreams. 

Happily, at least two city officials appear to have been inspired by these visions—on February 23, Councilmembers At Large Isaiah Thomas and Katherine Gilmore Richardson announced the creation of a $1 million “Illuminate the Arts” grant as part of City Council’s New Normal Budget Act. The grant will be distributed to individual artists, nonprofits, and small businesses through the OACCE. 

To be sure, the arts will need ongoing advocacy in the months and years ahead. Leibrand, the OACCE’s Community Engagement Manager, said that while it is too early to make predictions about the city’s budget for 2022, “Philadelphia could be facing a budget gap of around $450 million.” The city will once again have to make difficult choices and will once again be tempted to sacrifice the arts. Visit Power Street Theatre’s website for information about the organizations responsible for the Digital Rally’s success and how to contribute to the continuing struggle.

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