This story is a part of the Every Voice, Every Vote series.
Nine candidates vying to be the next mayor of Philadelphia came to the Kimmel Center on Thursday night to discuss their vision for the city’s cultural sector under their administration.
At the mayoral forum, organized by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center and structured as a formal debate, the candidates were asked about arts funding, prioritizing the city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy, and how they might leverage arts organizations to address problems such as crime and poverty.
All of the candidates said they would make the director of the Office of Arts and Culture a permanent, cabinet-level position (currently the office exists within the Managing Director’s office), and most said they would be “cheerleaders” for the arts.
Former City Councilmember Alan Domb went so far as to say he would be his own deputy mayor.
“I want to be deputy mayor of arts, culture, and the creative economy,” Domb said. “Because, a: I love it. And, b: I’m OK working 18 hours a day of doing whatever I can do to make the city the best it can be.”
When asked if they would create a permanent, dedicated revenue stream for the arts, all of the candidates raised their hands, with the exception of Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who asked if the questions implied the implication of a new tax or a percentage of the annual budget.
Candidates were of different minds when it came to how the city would fund the arts. Former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said she would impose no new taxes to fund the arts but rather make operational efficiencies to generate money. David Oh promised a $40 million Arts Recovery Fund, something he proposed while he was on City Council during the pandemic. Former Councilmember Helen Gym said she would harness corporate and philanthropic money.
Former municipal court judge James DeLeon said he knows exactly where to find money for the arts: towing.
“The towing regulations have not been changed since the 1950s,” DeLeon said. “So that’s where I would start taking my look for dedicated, ongoing funding source for the arts.”
There were about 200 people in the audience at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center, many of them leaders of local arts and culture organizations. The forum was moderated by Jenny DeHuff, editor of the political news outlet City and State PA, and Ari Mittleman, host of the Pennsylvania Kitchen Table Politics podcast. They asked questions derived from queries submitted by people involved in the arts sector.
DeHuff and Mittleman broke up policy questions with personal ones, like asking the candidates who their favorite musicians are, and if they personally play an instrument or have a musical background: most said they used to play an instrument but have not kept it up. Oh said he has “three guitars that I can’t play,” Gym said she “plays piano so I don’t have to sing,” and Domb said as a child he was identified with perfect pitch.
All of the candidates talked about the importance of offering arts education in schools. Jeff Brown, the CEO of a chain of supermarkets, said he would make arts education “mandatory.” Quiñones Sánchez said she plans to promote public-private partnerships to bring non-profit arts organizations into schools.
Many candidates expressed ideas on how to use the arts to address issues such as crime and poverty. Rhynhart said she would “weave” the arts into all the departments that report to the mayor’s office. Former Councilmember Derek Green said he would bring into his cabinet “someone that understands that arts and culture helps address public safety issues, economy development issues and entrepreneurship, and well as hospitality.”
Former Councilmember Cherelle Parker said she would “ensure that arts and culture is an essential part of problem-solving in the city of Philadelphia.”
There are other mayoral forums that are expected to address the arts sector, including on March 30 at the Puerto Rican cultural center Taller Puertorriqueño in partnership with WHYY.
This story is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. Learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters here.