Philly’s Arts and Culture Task Force wants to ensure an equitable economic recovery

Samantha Rise leads a march demanding arts funding in a giant unicorn puppet

Samantha Rise, program director of Girls Rock Philly, leads a march with a giant unicorn puppet demanding arts funding in June 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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After almost 10 months of shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the arts sector in Philadelphia is seeing some glimmers of hope.

Although museums will be closed under Gov. Tom Wolf’s extension of the winter shutdown, they’ll be allowed to reopen on Jan. 4. Additionally, an infusion of $15 billion for the arts comes with the new federal stimulus package once passed.

And on Dec. 17, the Knight Foundation announced a boost of $780,000 in grant money for a half-dozen Philadelphia cultural organizations.

Amid these glimmers, the newly formed Arts and Culture Task Force of Philadelphia’s City Council will host its first public meeting on Sunday, Dec. 27. The task force hopes to solicit ideas from the public on how the arts and culture sector can recover from the pandemic recession in an equitable way.

The Task Force was established in early December by City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas.

“We’ll find ways to incentivize new investments in the arts,” said Thomas in a statement. “We’ll expand new educational and career opportunities. We’ll put an emphasis on diversity, inclusion, and equity.”

The Task Force plans to spend the winter and early spring engaging artists and cultural workers on issues pertaining to arts in the city. Then, in April, they will offer City Council’s recommendations on how best to support Philadelphia artists and arts organizations through the pandemic and beyond.

Task force co-chair Ciarra Lambert (along with the founder of Weekender Experiences Raheem Manning) said the task force is meant to be a liaison between City Council and often-overlooked community organizations, who she says were struggling even before the economic slump created by the pandemic.

“A lot of people in the arts and culture community in Philadelphia, especially the smaller under-represented groups, always felt like they didn’t necessarily have access,” Lambert said. “When COVID hit, it was a lot harder for groups that already had limited access to continue to have access [at all]. The money is important, but also how we spend that money to make sure everybody gets a fair share.”

City Hall already has an Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, an entity under the auspices of the mayor that was dramatically de-funded by Mayor Jim Kenney in the current budget.

A spokesperson for Councilmember Thomas said the creation of the task force was not intended to cast aspersions on the work done by the city’s arts office to support organizations and maintain public art.

“We think there are conversations that have been missing, such as job creation and economic incentives as it relates to arts and culture,” said Max Weisman, Thomas’ communications director. “In the past, art and culture has been first on the budgetary chopping block. We want to re-frame the dialogue to make sure people understand that, not only are they vital but, they can be a huge asset in economic recovery.”

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The Zoom call this Sunday will likely be the only event where the general public can chime in. The task force is planning additional, more focused, invite-only sessions with selected stakeholders in the arts sector.

In addition to co-chairing the task force, Lambert raps and emcees under the name Queen Jo. She hopes to not only help artists survive the pandemic, but also to foster fundamental changes in how the city nurtures its artists on an ongoing basis.

“There are so many artist sectors that have been left out of the conversation: drag artists, rappers, poets, and artists who are part of the nightlife industry,” Lambert said. “I would like to see lasting changes in the amount of access that everybody can share equally.”

Members of the task force come from a range of backgrounds, including Maori Karmael Holmes of BlackStar Film Festival, Terry Fox of Philadelphia Dance Projects, Dr. Carmen Febo San Miguel of Taller Puertorriqueño, Anne Ishii of Asian Arts Initiative, Stanford Thompson of Play On Philly, and drag artist Drake McCoy, a.k.a. Mz. Peaches.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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