Cuts to the Arts Help Philadelphia Address Huge Budget Gap


PHILADELPHIA — Across the country, cultural organizations have been hard hit by the economic fallout from the pandemic, but the impact has been felt particularly hard here where the city has eliminated its funding for two institutions, reduced it for others and completely shuttered its Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.

The cutbacks have been felt at some of the city’s largest cultural organizations, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose city funding was trimmed back by $510,000 to $2 million, deepening a shortfall that has led the museum to reduce its staff by about 100 people.

The Greater Philadelphia Film Office, an economic development agency that promotes the film industry, lost all of its $131,000 in city funding, and Historic Philadelphia, a nonprofit, also lost its public money, as the City Council approved a budget last week that reduced citywide arts funding to $5.84 million, a cut of 40 percent.

Still the council-approved figure was $1 million more for the arts than first proposed by Mayor Jim Kenney as his administration worked to close an estimated $750 million gap in Philadelphia’s $4.8 billion budget.

The elimination of the City’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, established in 1986, appears to have left Philadelphia as the only major U.S. city without a publicly funded office that coordinates the arts, said Inga Vitols, a spokeswoman for Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy group.

“From what we’ve heard, it’s only Philly,” she said. “Most others are slated for deep to manageable budget cuts.”

The office, among other things, promoted arts education, managed the city’s collection of sculpture and other public art, and arranged art shows in City Hall. But city funding for major organizations like the Philadelphia Museum of Art are not funneled through that office and instead flow directly to those institutions.

The council restored $1 million to the budget of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports hundreds of arts groups, including many smaller, neighborhood-based organizations.

Lauren Cox, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said elimination of the city’s arts office was one of many painful cuts that were needed to close a deficit that was seven times bigger than that suffered by Philadelphia during the financial crisis of 2007-09.

“With more than one out of four Philadelphia families struggling at or below the poverty line, lessening the direct impact on residents was the mayor’s priority,” Ms. Cox wrote in an email. “So, the spending plan approved this week by City Council prioritizes public health, public safety and education, while maintaining core municipal services that our residents rely on daily.”

Philadelphia has the highest percentage of people living below the federal poverty rate, 24.5 percent, among the 10 largest U.S. cities, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Seven jobs were cut when the city’s arts office was eliminated, but two of the staff positions — the chief cultural officer and the public art director — were retained and are being transferred to the office of the city’s managing director.

The arts office was also shut down between 2004 and 2008 during the administration of Mayor John F. Street.

Barbara Silzle, executive director of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, said the council’s restoration of funding for her organization represented some relief after the mayor’s initial plan proposed eliminating all city funding. Still, she said, her budget will be reduced by 68 percent, spelling harder times ahead for the roughly 350 arts organizations who, in total, received nearly $3 million from the fund in the fiscal year that just ended.

“When Covid hit, we were zeroed out, which was absolutely shocking and stunning, so to come back to $1 million is a moment to rejoice,” she said in an interview. But she predicted the sharp reductions would have a devastating effect on the many small arts groups supported by the fund. Almost half of the fund’s grants are made to organizations with budgets of less than $150,000.

Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, a West Philadelphia-based nonprofit that teaches Arabic arts and culture, has been supported by the Cultural Fund since 2006, said Hazami Sayed, the executive director.

Although this year’s $11,800 grant is a relatively small part of the group’s $500,000 budget, it would have a significant impact if it went away, Ms. Sayed said. “It’s something we have been counting on for many years,” she said. “We are really indebted for our start and our growth to the fund.”

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