Pandemics are hard. Investing in community-based artists could help.

Artwork from Village of Arts and Humanities

Artwork and signs offer public health messages during the pandemic. (Village of Arts and Humanities/Facebook)

“No artist of international reputation — or even national notoriety for that matter — born in Philadelphia has been able to live here.” That was renowned illustrator Joseph Pennell writing in the 1930s. 

Things have changed for artists in Philadelphia but the lack of local affirmation and support remains a frequent refrain. Artists note particular challenges with finding commercial outlets in the city — and their invisibility to the city’s most prestigious institutions. 

The fragile support extends to City Hall where officials champion the arts but set aside relatively little money to support its production. In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the city invested approximately $9 million — .2% of the city’s $5 billion budget. That small investment delivers dividends across Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and burnishes the city’s reputation on the national and international stage. Yet the payoff didn’t stop Mayor Jim Kenney from proposing a post-pandemic budget for this fiscal year that eliminated the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund entirely while putting only a .5% dent in the $650 million shortfall.

While the budget that City Council ultimately passed reinstated some of those cuts, Philadelphia is moving into the new year with less money for art than in the past. Kenney’s initial budget and even the compromise said something loud and clear about the value city government assigns to art. 

The struggle for recognition and even basic survival is heightened for artists of color and artists from other marginalized communities. Grassroots organizations that contribute at the neighborhood level face a catch-22. Many provide critical services in communities that are not effectively engaged by larger institutions. Yet their status is precarious because they lack the social capital or staffing levels to pursue traditional sources of nonprofit funding. Especially now, during an unprecedented pandemic — a time of skyrocketing unemployment, uncertain prospects for public education and heightened healthcare concerns

Yet in the face of these challenges and the many persistent variations of the Philly shrug, the city’s artists continue to persevere, thrive, and produce work that is shaping our collective future.

Emblematic of this spirit is the Reentry Think Tank. The United States has incarcerated more than 2 million people, nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. In this landscape, Philadelphia boasts the highest incarceration rate of any large U.S. jurisdiction, according to a 2018 report. Reentry Think Tank partners with artists to restore the humanity of formerly incarcerated men and women to help them succeed in their communities. Through wheatpaste posters, reclaimed spaces, and amplified voices, artists act as engines for education, beautification and political movements and contribute mightily to the most positive aspects of our city. 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by The Reentry Think Tank (@reentrythinktank) on

The turmoil of 2020 is forcing all of us into unwelcome choices and calculated risks. The ongoing uncertainty is dismaying and exhausting. It is a struggle to find precedent and guidance in this moment. One historical lesson we should remember is how the arts have provided a haven in Philadelphia’s times of crisis. The city’s affirmation of and investment in culture — especially at the grassroots level — has always benefited the city well beyond the direct recipients. Structures that deliver resources to artists have created outcomes that are efficient, effective, and even transformative. 

During the original Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government launched the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Its programs included the Federal Art Project (FAP), a nationwide initiative that ran from 1935 to 1943. The program provided subsidies for artists’ creation of murals, easel paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, theatre scenic design, and arts and crafts.

Philadelphia’s rich tradition in printmaking includes hosting the United State’s first lithograph. The FAP site in Philadelphia came out of this history and was one of five nationwide sites that was designated a Fine Print Workshop. Pioneering Black artist Dox Thrash and colleagues that included Samuel Brown, Claude Clark, Hugh Mesibov, and Raymond Steth oversaw a laboratory for technical innovation, inventing the carborundum printing process. The Workshop also modeled racial inclusion when most local institutions were segregated. Today, the legacy of Dox Thrash continues to inspire young people to invest in their neighborhood with a vision for community betterment.

Another period of significant investment happened in the 1960s and 1970s. The federal Model Cities program, and slightly later, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), were efforts to counter failed, top-down urban renewal projects and increase citizen participation. In 1966, during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the Model Cities Program launched with an emphasis on local control: “The idea that there could be an effective working partnership between elected officials and representatives of local communities took hold on both sides.” For Philadelphia, the program brought resources to the tune of $25 million annually for 40 programs, ranging from housing subsidies, job training, healthcare, transit and the arts.

North Philadelphia’s Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center is among the initiatives that benefited from Washington’s investment. The scale of Ile Ife’s activities increased when its founder Arthur Hall became cultural arts director of Model Cities in 1970, one year after the center opened. With his connections to the federal program, Hall could program the center more ambitiously, advocate more effectively, and engage the public through a variety of artistic expressions. Charles Searles, Barbara Bullock, and Twins Seven Seven were among the notable artists who led programs at Ile Ife. Ile Ife closed in 1989 but its spirit has lived on through the work of the Village of Arts and Humanities, which took over the space when the center closed.

The Village practices “artist-facilitated community building,” and has created a network of murals, parks and gardens in North Philadelphia. During the current crisis, it has used its platform to support artists in the 19133 zip code and to address food insecurity in partnership with the Share Food Program of Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, CETA, active from 1973-82, funded job training initiatives that included direct benefits to artists. CETA was estimated to have invested over $175 million on art projects and employed 10,000 artists.

Philadelphia beneficiaries included Brandywine Workshop, a resource for artists and the larger community that lives on today. The CETA funds allowed the organization to employ 38 local artists annually between 1977 and 1980.

If the present confusion and uncertainty has revealed one thing, it is that the old status quo is unacceptable. What would a more just, equitable city look like? Our past investments in artists and creativity offer lessons.

Blake Bradford is a Philadelphia-based writer, educator and cultural advocate. His appointments include serving as the Director of the Lincoln University-Barnes Foundation Museum Studies Program and as the inaugural Bernard C. Watson Director of Education at the Barnes Foundation.

Follow PlanPhilly

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal