Emergency arts fund pays out $4 million in Philadelphia region

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Artist Keisha Whatley paints on the steps of the Art Museum at a rally demanding funding for the arts in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Artist Keisha Whatley paints on the steps of the Art Museum at a rally demanding funding for the arts in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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An emergency relief fund launched during the coronavirus pandemic is paying out $4 million to hundreds of cultural organizations and more than 1,000 individual artists in the Philadelphia region.

The COVID-19 Arts Aid PHL Fund launched in April after many arts organizations were forced to partially or fully shut down. In normal times, about 50% of the revenue keeping the local arts economy going comes from tickets and other audience dollars that dried up when the stay-at-home order took effect in March. That percentage is much higher for theaters, musical groups or others who perform in front of a crowd.

“One of the reasons we started this fund was the COVID-19 fund that was set up first expressly did not fund arts and culture,” said Maud Lyon, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, referring to the PHL COVID-19 Fund, a $6.5 million emergency fund geared specifically for socials service nonprofits.

“Our sector is one of the most deeply impacted. We wanted to provide support for artists who were abruptly turned out of work, and also the small arts organizations that are truly grassroots and who do great community service but don’t have as much access to funding,” she said.

The application process was designed to be simple, with a low bar for eligibility so as not to burden organizations with a suddenly reduced staff. All of the eligible organizations that applied, received the money. They range from small groups such as the Coatesville Cultural Society and North Philadelphia’s iMPeRFeCT Gallery, to larger institutions like Opera Philadelphia and Eastern State Penitentiary.

Individual artists who were eligible were granted money based on income lost because of the pandemic. Those payments were mostly a few hundred dollars. According to Lyon, the fund was able to pay 63% of qualified applicants. Then the money ran out.

The fund was launched with a $2.5 million contribution from the William Penn Foundation, and quickly attracted large donations from 14 other local foundations. In addition, more than 400 people personally gave money out of their pockets.

“Individuals gave everything from as little as three dollars to six figures,” Lyon said.

The fund expects to pay out all of its assets by the end of July. It was designed to provide temporary emergency relief, and will dissolve after this first round of distribution.

The William Penn Foundation supports WHYY.


Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.

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