Philly's new art czar plans to balance the creative economy.
Today is Gary Steuer's first day as director of Philadelphia's freshly reopened Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, which was shut down under former Mayor John Street's administration in 2004.
The "creative economy" part of the office's title and mission is new, and it reveals the strategic savvy Steuer will need to keep Philly's nonprofit cultural organizations afloat through a recession and recent seismic shifts in support streams. (The federal spigot has been screwed so tight, most organizations rely almost entirely on local, state and individual support.)
The 2008 Portfolio, a summary analysis of 281 Philadelphia-based nonprofit arts and cultural organizations released by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance last week, calls the current outlook for Philadelphia's creative economy "a mixed bag."
There's no doubt that Philadelphia's cultural community is vibrant. Since 1995 the number of nonprofit cultural organizations in the city has grown at twice the rate of inflation, a figure that pretty much aligns with an overall national surge.
To keep up with all the goings-on--not even including for-profit music venues, theater, traveling Broadway productions and so on--you'd have to attend three performances every hour, take 13 tours and sip cheap red wine at 14 openings a day for a year straight.
How Steuer, who relocated from New York to an apartment on Washington Square a couple of weeks ago, handles the creative economy challenge will directly effect Philly's overall financial health. The business of cultural nonprofits isn't Kumbaya, feel-good, liberal-minded fluff.
Strategic management of cultural nonprofits is a relatively sharp urban-revitalization tool that impacts a city's overall economic success. Beyond the truism of the more nonprofits the better, the closer the organizations are clustered together, the more amplified the effect--a discovery that set off the boom of prefab "cultural districts" since the '80s.
A collaborative study by Penn's Social Impact of the Arts Project and the Reinvestment Fund--which both lead the country in analysis of creative economies--shows that the often-overlooked downside to bustling cultural organizations is an increase in economic inequality.
Steuer knows this all to well. He watched it happen to New York's BAM district (the area around the Brooklyn Academy of Music) and to Harlem.
"It's become a challenge in terms of how you preserve the affordability and special character of the community for people who were there before the arts organizations," says Steuer. "One of the charges I have from the mayor is to be the vehicle for making sure these issues are looked at in a holistic way. So together the people responsible for economic development, education, zoning and transportation will look at how we can create vital, thriving neighborhoods through the arts."
Another key finding in the study is that while federal support is down by 72 percent, state and local government support of nonprofit cultural organizations is up 144 percent.
"Some would argue that from an actual revenue standpoint, federal support is almost irrelevant at this point," says Steuer, though he's optimistic about it improving in the next administration.
During the primaries, says Steuer, his organization Americans for the Arts solicited arts-and-culture platforms from candidates. Though support for the arts doesn't necessarily split across party lines--Steuer points out, for example, that Mike Huckabee is "huge on arts education"--the future looks bleak if it's McCain dusting off Bush's desk in January.
"They have not been able to get any kind of statement position from McCain. Obama was one of the first candidates to provide a very significant platform that really outlined his strong support for arts and culture," he says. "It seems more likely that that'd happen under an Obama administration."
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