Emily Guendelsberger Emily is senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club, the Guardian and other fine publications.
In the many, many studies done on the impact of the growth of the arts and culture in Philadelphia over the past decade, the word “ecosystem” is often used to describe all of the city’s galleries, audiences, artists, foundations and anything else involved with how art is produced and consumed. It’s a term that unfortunately evokes the image of a theater full of frogs and flies watching Shakespeare. If you extend the silly metaphor, though, there’s at least one useful image: Philly’s arts ecosystem is a bit like a pond where fish of all shapes and sizes are at an all-time high, but the water level keeps falling more and more each year.
And the Kimmel Center’s Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, otherwise known as PIFA, is a really big new fish. It rolled into town two years ago on a grant of $10 million — and because the numbers involved with arts funding can be a bit opaque, here are a few things that cost slightly less than $10 million:
- The total combined cost of the four years of the Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe leading up to PIFA.
- The combined grants that will be given out this year by the state’s Pennsylvania Council on the Arts ($8.1 million) and the city’s Philadelphia Cultural Fund ($1.6 million).
- The amount the Philadelphia Orchestra projected it would save in two-and-a-half years by cutting musician salaries and benefits as part of its 2011 Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan.
When you introduce anything that big into any ecosystem, it’s going to have an effect. But since the first Paris-themed festival in 2011 came pre-funded by the Annenberg Foundation, it wasn’t clear what that effect would be — or even whether this was sustainable or just a one-time set-money-on-fire fluke. As the Annenberg grant stipulated that the whole grant be spent on the festival’s first year, this sophomore outing will be a much better indicator of whether PIFA will sink or swim in the long run.
“The requirement to use the $10 million in the first year was to make sure it was big enough to really get launched — I think that really served it well,” says Anne Ewers, president and CEO of the Kimmel Center and the driving force behind PIFA. “When you put out $4 million for branding — people understood what it was, and came, and loved it. That’s an investment that we don’t have to make again.”
This year’s time-machine-themed festival, which begins today, is much smaller-scale, with 50 rather than 135 participating arts groups. Depending on whom you ask, this is because of either a more curatorial approach or a nearly halved budget of $5.3 million, raised mainly via corporate sponsorships and foundation grants. According to Ewers, potential funders of the planned third edition of the every-other-year festival in 2015, who presumably saw the first festival as a fluke and sat this one out, are watching closely. “To have another, equally successful [festival in] 2013 reinforces this chance of a lifetime” not for just the artists and audiences, she says, but “for the funding community to realize that their return on investment was exactly what they envisioned it to be.”
Kimmel representatives tend to coyly invoke the artistic temperament when asked for specifics about how the $10 million Annenberg grant was spent, as if word getting out about who got more funding than whom will cause the Avenue of the Arts to erupt into a week of catfights, but the $4 million figure Ewers mentioned would work out to about 40 percent of PIFA’s 2011 budget spent on marketing. Compare that to only 10 percent of expenses local performing-arts organizations averaged for marketing and ads the previous year (a total of about $21.3 million, according to a study by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance), and it’s not hard to see why some participating artists were startled.
Renae Dinerman worked with PIFA in 2011 as arts director of International House (she has since left), organizing a screening of a music-video work with Network for New Music. Because it was not commissioned by the festival, she says, coming under the PIFA umbrella meant a promotional boost, but no financial aid. And she found the benefits of being an official PIFA show were not what she’d hoped, given the competition for festivalgoers’ attention. “We maybe felt a little ignored, in the mix of 130 other events. ... It was a little frustrating, but understandable.”
Knowing that PIFA had dropped $4 million on ads made it more frustrating. “I went to all the marketing meetings, and I was really surprised that millions of dollars were going into marketing this event. They were putting billboards in Paris, France!” says Dinerman. “There was a disconnect between the branding and the hype and the marketing funds going into putting this together the first year and how that money didn’t seem to be getting down to the smaller organizations.”
“Lee [Annenberg] loved [the idea of a festival] because it had all the things she had always wanted to see for this city,” says Ewers. “The collaboration of its arts groups, the spotlight put on the arts in Philadelphia.” But, if you were judging it on where the dollars were spent, you might conclude the festival was as much about potential visitors to Philadelphia as it was about Philadelphians. Ewers’ goal was to establish PIFA as an international fly-in event, like Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but, small point — Philly already had a well-established Fringe Festival.
“You listen to funders complain about duplicating efforts,” says Thaddeus Squire, founder of CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia, a consulting group that helps arts nonprofits change to deal with this new, probably permanent economic situation. “FringeArts and Live Arts purports to be the same thing PIFA purports to be, which is: unique, an effort to place Philadelphia on the international map. I’m sure if you talked to [FringeArts president and producing director] Nick Stuccio, he’d say, ‘What the hell do you think we’ve been doing for the last 15 years?’”
(Asked for comment, Stuccio carefully wrote: “It’s true that the festival and the incredible artists we present, both from Philadelphia and over 30 countries, are known around the world. ... There have been many contributors to Philadelphia’s growing reputation as a city of world-class art. We’re really proud of what we’ve built and that we’ve played a significant role in developing that reputation.”)
By refusing to grant primacy to either the “Philadelphia” or “International” of its name, PIFA hasn’t firmly established itself as either.
“It’s trying to be this international thing for the city, but it’s really trying to solve some problems for the Kimmel Center — which is legitimate. The Kimmel Center’s putting it on,” says Squire. “[PIFA] has some conflicts internally with its concept: Is it about the Kimmel Center, or is it about the community? It can be about both, but I think the criticisms lobbed at it are, ‘Well, what is it about?’”
For a demonstration of the all-inclusive vagueness drawing those criticisms, here’s Ewers’ minute-and-a-half response to a question about whether PIFA was founded with a specific destination-arts-festival model like Edinburgh or Cannes in mind:
“We did look at all the other festivals to determine how to shape ours, but ours is unique — in the sense that when you look at something like an Edinburgh, everything comes from outside. Whereas this festival puts the spotlight on the arts and culture that Philadelphia has to offer. Because, let’s face it, we have an international orchestra in the Philadelphia Orchestra, we have Philadanco, which tours all over the world — those international things are here. And on top of that, of course, we all engage international artists, the Kimmel Center brings in international artists all the time, as does the orchestra, as do many of our other colleagues. And so it is an international festival; it does bring in international artists and it also puts an international spotlight on the arts organizations that exist here. And that uniqueness, I think, is terrific. Mind you, we looked at many other festivals, many of them were biannual; we thought that was a good pattern, so you have enough time to prepare between each festival. We looked at other festivals in terms of size and scope, and we chose what we feel are the best elements of other festivals plus making this uniquely our own.”
Ewers is an incredibly canny businesswoman who, since taking the helm of the Kimmel in 2007, has pulled the organization from eight-digit debts to solid profitability. PIFA is her creation through and through — she pitched the idea in her job interview. If she can’t give a clear mission statement for it in a minute or less, nobody can.
The time-machine theme of PIFA 2013 is so open-ended as to apparently include anything that happened, or probably happened, or probably will happen, at some point in the past or future — and some even half-ass picking a defensible date. (Trapeze lessons claiming to represent the day in 1965 when the miniskirt was invented, we are looking at you.) Likewise, almost anything would fit into the festival concept Ewers describes — a month of events that simultaneously celebrate a local arts community, internationally touring Philly groups and international acts that visit Philly.
“Pssh,” you say, “What about, uh, Savion Glover performing with Justin Guarini?” Joke’s on you — that’s Saturday night at 8 p.m.
The backdrop for this high-budget, dual-fuzzy-concept festival is a city where the arts are simultaneously thriving and starving.
Take the fate of the Philadelphia Theatre Alliance, which until about a year ago was a major provider of services for the theater community, the most visible being the annual Barrymore Awards. But on April 5, 2012, the board met, examined their charter and concluded that the best thing they could do for the theater community was commit organizational seppuku.
“Competition was getting more and more fierce among the theater companies for grants, and the Theatre Alliance was applying to those very same foundations to support an administrative infrastructure” that wasn’t showing results equal to its salary and benefit costs, says Margie Salvante, who was executive director at the time. “There are more theater companies every year, which is great! But there’s the same amount or less contributed revenue available.” The board voted to dissolve. Responsibilities for services were divided up among member theaters and organizations and a new group, Theatre Philadelphia, that stepped up to help fill the void. “What’s important there is that that new organization is volunteer-based,” says Salvante.
The past several years have been rougher on Philly’s arts sector than cheery headlines about the city’s culture boom would lead you to expect. A 2011 Cultural Alliance study of changes between 2007 and 2009 found a couple truly heartening statistics. True to Philadelphians’ rep as faithful theater patrons, arts ticket revenues went up 11 percent and individual donations by 20 percent during the recession. But it also found that, if you include investments, revenues fell a horrendous 43 percent, and half of the organizations polled were in the red by the study’s end.
In 2007, the RAND Corporation put out a prescient study titled “Arts and Culture in the Metropolis: Strategies for Sustainability” focusing on Philadelphia as a case study. It ends with a list of threats. First: “The region’s art sector may outgrow its support base.”
“The arts sector in the Philadelphia region depends upon earnings, especially admissions receipts, for about half its total revenues. The two most important drivers of total attendance — population growth and the growth in the number of well-educated residents — have remained stable over the past decade. The arts sector, however, has been growing much more rapidly than either of these two factors.” A massive survey of local arts organizations turned up the most frequent complaint: that “large major arts organizations … receive the vast majority of resources. Interviews revealed that many smaller arts organizations were struggling to obtain funding and, in some cases, to survive. ... Indeed, the growth of the arts sector raises questions about its long-term ﬁnancial sustainability.”
“It’s basic math: With less to go around every year, many vital community cultural programs no longer make the cut,” wrote Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance president Tom Kaiden in a letter to the Inquirer this month about the grants budget of the city’s Cultural Fund being cut in half from $3.2 million in 2010 to the $1.6 million that was awarded in small chunks a couple weeks ago. “This status quo is not sustainable. ... Trimming budgets and adopting better management practices can only go so far.”
American nonprofit-arts ecosystems have existed outside of the laws of straight capitalism since the Industrial Revolution; they’re not the zero-sum games of the free market, everyone competing for a fixed amount of money excreted by a city’s foundations, ticket buyers, government and rich people. “It’s different in every community, every place I’ve ever worked,” says Ewers. “In Minneapolis, where they have many, many Fortune 500 companies, there’s huge amounts of support from the corporate world. In Boston, it was very private and anonymous, very large gifts from individuals.”
Philly has historically been blessed with a glut of major arts-funding foundations — Pew, William Penn, Annenberg, Knight — and an arts-loving citizenry that actually responded to the recession by going out to the theater more.
However, both appear to have time limits. Leonore Annenberg’s gift of $10 million for PIFA was her last before her death at age 91 in 2009; since then, the Annenberg Foundation has essentially moved to California. Pew does more research in D.C. than straight grant-making these days — plus, last week it announced it was switching to a project-based grant model, a move that in effect will force big established arts nonprofits like the Arden, Opera Philadelphia and the PMA to hustle for grants like everyone else. Then on Monday, the Lenfest Foundation announced it was drastically changing up its plans and would be focusing solely on disadvantaged youth. The William Penn Foundation is now the last big player in the area.
Much more serious for the long term is the Philadelphia School District’s view of music and arts programs as disposable in times of trial. In 2006, only a third of District schools had both an art teacher and a music teacher, and things have only gotten worse. The biggest correlation with an adult supporting the arts is if that adult participated in the arts herself as a kid. If the Philadelphia Orchestra isn’t pleased with These Kids Today, just wait 20 years for These Kids Tomorrow, the ones who never learned “Twinkle, Twinkle” on the viola.
And it’s in the context of those kids of tomorrow that the time machine wedged into the Kimmel Center lobby starts to make sense. Though some of its events can feel a little Popsy and entry-level for a festival devoted to the arts (particularly if you’re coming off a Fringe in which you saw a gut-wrenching chamber opera and 15 different sets of genitalia), it’s because many are supposed to be just that: entry level. Things like the big street fair, the tons of advertising, the giant spiral thing in the Kimmel lobby and the many family-friendly and free events seem aimed less at pushing the edges of creative expression than at creating new supporters of the arts to match the growth of arts that need supporting. It’s thinking about the future.
So what will this city’s arts ecosystem look like in 20 years?
Anne Ewers hopes that people value the arts and their economic benefits enough that everyone currently in the funding game — business, government, individual and foundation — steps up their support: “One area where I’ve been very pleased with our initial efforts — I’d say the area we all need to look at — is the number of large, large companies in the suburbs that are eager for a presence in Center City.”
Thaddeus Squire of CultureWorks thinks arts organizations will be supported almost entirely by their audiences: “We’ll be less concerned with internationalism and all the insecurities Philadelphia has. We’ll create value on a highly local level, and support things on that scale.”
Tom Kaiden of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance sees a shift toward both support and participation coming from a very broad base of everyday Philadelphians: “Increasingly, I think, culture will be woven into the activities in every neighborhood of a city — in fact, I think that’s already happening.”
But, as that time machine in the Kimmel Center isn’t functional yet, we’ll all just have to wait and see.
What do you think the arts in Philly will look like in 20 years? Let us know in the comments.
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