Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy subject of in-depth WHYY report

WHYY’s Alex Schmidt talked to a number of different people from throughout the region’s arts and culture community to get their reactions to the impending reopening of the Philadelphia Office of Arts and Culture. The office has added “and Creative Economy” to its title to acknowledge the role that arts institutions play in creating wealth for the region.

Expectations high for city’s reopened Office of Arts and Culture

by Alex Schmidt, WHYY Arts and Culture Reporter

It’s not always clear what city government can do to help organize arts and cultural institutions.
Many members of the arts community say in its former incarnation, the Office of Arts and Culture didn’t meet the needs of both established and growing institutions. Peggy Amsterdam is president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, a group that has been advocating for more city involvement in the arts sector.

“I think years ago, arts and culture were seen as a diplomatic thing, a good thing for mayors to do. There were proclamations to be signed, parades were run. But as a city grows up and recognizes these cultural amenities, there just much, much more to be done,” said Amsterdam.

So when Mayor Street closed the office in 2004, Philadelphia’s arts community experienced an existential crisis.

They held rallies and asked why the city didn’t care about their work. But Amsterdam believes that the closure actually turned out to be a good thing.

“We took the time, we did the research and we looked at what other cities were doing. And we sort of stopped and said, ‘hey, maybe the old office wasn’t doing exactly what it needs to be doing now,” explained Amsterdam.

Over the past 4 years, different local groups have held grassroots meetings, and conducted the research that helped to make art a major platform during the 2007 mayoral race.

Chief among the efforts was the commissioning of a report by the Rand Corporation called Arts and Culture in the Metropolis, which compared the cultural offices of 11 American cities. According to Liz Ondaatje, one of the study’s authors, the report proved the important role that an Office of Arts and Culture can play in a city.

“Having an office and a leader within city government does help focus policy attention on key issues,” said Ondaatje, “not just for the arts sector but for the city as a whole, such as arts education in the public schools, or access to the arts for under served communities, or ensuring that there’s attention to the arts paid in the neighborhoods.”

The Asian Arts Initiative is a community based arts center in Chinatown.  Gayle Isa is the Executive Director.

In January of 2006, Isa received a notification that the Asian Arts Initiative was in the path of the Convention Center expansion.

Just last week, they moved into their permanent home, on Vine Street near 12th.

“Our former home in the Gilbert Building was demolished and over the past year we were moved to two interim spaces,” said Isa, “one that had no heat over the wintertime, and one next to this which is now our permanent home.”

Isa says that a city Office of Arts and Culture could have helped her through the process.

The stretch of Vine Street that The Asian Arts Initiative has moved to isn’t business friendly – trash lines the street, cars speed by, and there’s almost no pedestrian traffic.

The Asian Arts Initiative has cleaned up the area around its new building. It provides free after-school services to hundreds of children, and free events to the community.

In other words, Isa says, institutions like hers do the gritty work of city improvement and they should get help.

“It’s definitely taken a toll to have to learn everything about real estate development, and then at the same time to be able to continue to serve the artists and youth in our communities,” said Isa.

“I definitely think that one of the hopes is that a new office of arts and culture will allow there to be a sort of liaison function in the city to help organizations facing crises or situations like ours.”

The new art czar will answer directly to the mayor — unlike the former art and culture office, which operated out of the Commerce Department. Most artists and arts advocates agree – that’s a step in the right direction.

So, the art czar will have the ear of the mayor but who will have the ear of the art czar?

That’s still up for discussion. With the profusion of arts in Philadelphia, has come a profusion of opinions.

Matty Hart is an arts advocate in Philadelphia. During the mayoral campaign, he was a leader in making the arts a platform issue. He explains that despite the excitement, not all of the cultural players in the city feel included in the process.

“As much as there is this complex, turbulent enthusiasm in the field for what comes next,” said Hart, “the authority of this new office will be the true, big tent incorporation of all of that. As soon as there are real walls built, the tenor of the voice will change.”

For his part, Philadelphia art czar Gary Steuer says it’s too early to share his thoughts on the actual structure of the office. He is new to the city, and he’ll be getting his bearings during the first weeks. He says he has a lot to learn – and many people to listen to.

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