March 16-22, 2006
Arts : ArtHis Word Is Bond
Arts groups stand to benefit from Mayor Street's new $65 million initiative. But not all of them.
: Michael T. Regan
But these are a few of the reasons why Mayor Street included the museumalong with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, New Freedom Theater, the Please Touch Museum, the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum and the Philadelphia Zooin his proposed $150 million bond initiative. If approved by City Council, $65 million will fund arts and culture institutions, $65 million will fund neighborhood commercial corridors and the rest is still up for grabs.
This is a radical shift from a mayor who, just two years ago, eliminated the Office of Arts and Culture and slashed funding to the Art Museum, the Atwater Kent Museum and the Cultural Fund [see sidebar, "Philly Fund Savers"]. So what happened?
"Cultural advocates have done a really good job of continuing to talk to him about arts and culture in the city," says Julie Goodman Hawkins, director of policy and government relations at the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. "He's also nearing the end of his time in office. This is the opportunity in his political life to leave a legacy."
It's too early to say what criteria Street will use to decide who gets how much, although
mayoral spokesman Joe Grace says, "the process is under way."
Street has said the art museum will get $30 million toward its $500 million master plan for restoring and modernizing the museum over 10 to 15 years. "The mayor has always appreciated arts and culture," says Gail Harrity, PMA chief operating officer, "and I think this was the first time he was able to announce funding and support that philosophical commitment."
Not everyone likes the idea. The Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA), the agency that OKs the five-year budget, says borrowing so much money right now is unwise. "From our perspective, the city's core infrastructure should have been a higher priority," PICA executive director Rob Dubow says, referring to maintenance on city buildings.
You won't hear that from groups who stand to benefit. The Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum would put the cash toward moving from a row home near Rittenhouse Square. Executive director John Rumm will announce the new location this year. The money would supplement the Please Touch Museum's $35 million construction budget for their move to Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, says president and CEO Nancy Kolb.
But smaller arts organizations aren't as lucky. Consider the plight of the tenants of the Gilbert building at 13th and Cherry streets, five groups and dozens of studio artists in all, who have months to find new workspaces before the Convention Center expansion wrecking ball crashes through their walls.
When Gayle Isa, executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative (AAI), heard about the bond plan, she thought, "This could bail us out of what potentially could be a very bad situation."
But no one has called offering a check, even though Isa wrote to the Commerce Department and has talked to Councilman Frank DiCicco and Councilman Michael Nutter. For now, the only calls she gets are from artists eager to participate in programs. Isa is setting the summer schedule, but she says, "We're sort of hesitant to see what we can commit to for the fall."
In addition to uncertainty about when they absolutely have to leave their home of eight years, AAI's mission hinges on its proximity to Chinatown, whose northern tier is the Loft District, which translates to pricey rents and small spaces.
"If Philadelphia wants to keep all these grassroots organizations that build the spirit of city and help the city build its reputation as a good place for the arts," she says, "then we are going to need something longer-term and permanently affordable."
Adding another wrinkle to the funding debate, DiCicco is already second-guessing one allocation. Instead of pumping millions into the African American Museum's aging building, he asks, might it be cheaper to sell the prime real estate at Seventh and Arch streets and move the operation elsewhere? (He won't say where, but doesn't rule out the Parkway.)
Museum spokesman Joel Avery says once the board begins crafting a long-term strategic plan, "One of the key subjects to be determined would be relocation and expansion."
President and CEO Romona Riscoe Benson, who has guided the museum through a period of financial crisis and recovery since last February, is just happy to be part of the bond money discussion. "We're thrilled," she says. "It is the right message at the right time for us."