Play On Philly acquires the Marian Anderson Award

File photo: The founding members of Kool & The Gang, (from left) George Brown, Robert 'Kool' Bell, Dennis D. T. Thomas, and Claydes Charles Smith, were given the Marian Anderson Award in November, 2019. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

File photo: The founding members of Kool & The Gang, (from left) George Brown, Robert 'Kool' Bell, Dennis D. T. Thomas, and Claydes Charles Smith, were given the Marian Anderson Award in November, 2019. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Marian Anderson Award, given annually to a high-profile entertainer who has made significant contributions to society, is now being run by Play On Philly, a city-wide classical musical training program for children.

Since 1990, the award has been run by an independent organization with its own board, recently in partnership with the Kimmel Center where a gala event and performance took place every year. That organization will dissolve; the administration of the award and distribution of its philanthropic proceeds will be handled by Play On Philly.

“Marian Anderson’s legacy and the mission of Play On Philly was in direct alignment to turn the award ceremony into something that would honor Marian Anderson’s legacy while helping lots and lots of young people,” said Play On founder and executive director Stanford Thompson. “We have an organization that is mature enough to take on that challenge.”

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Founded in 2011 on the El Sistema method of using music training as part of a holistic education, Play On Philly offers free music instruction to students, often from low-income communities with little exposure to formal music training. Play On teaching artists instruct children every day for two hours, at five locations across the city.

The last Marian Anderson Award was given in 2019 to the band Kool and the Gang. Due to the pandemic it was canceled the last two years. Since then the organization went through leadership changes: longtime executive director Patrick Moran retired, and board chair Nina Tinari stepped down.

That created an “inflection point” for the organization, said Gregory Murphy, who stepped in as interim director while the group did some soul-searching.

The Marian Anderson Award organization was primarily focused on two things: staging the gala event and distributing its proceeds. Murphy admitted those were not year-round activities, and another organization with more frequent programming could more efficiently do the job.

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Murphy said it was time to consolidate resources.

“There are a lot of nonprofits, many of them with similar missions doing very similar things with two separate budgets,” he said.

As the Marian Anderson Award was considering its future, Thompson watched as a board member and suggested his organization could take over the award. Murphy said the Marian Anderson Award consulted with the living descendants of Marian Anderson while making its decision to dissolve.

“We looked at several organizations. We didn’t just look at Play On Philly,” Murphy said. “That was the one that most closely matched with the Marian Anderson Award’s mission, and was willing to not only continue the mission but see that the Marian Anderson Award continued to exist.”

Proceeds from the award’s gala were used to fund a scholarship for aspiring musicians who demonstrate “significant talent and commitment” as well as financial need. Under Play On Philly, those proceeds would instead be used to fund a new initiative, the Marian Anderson Young Artist Program.

“So before, the grant was cash given to help students pay for lessons or instruments,” said Thompson. “We’re taking this a couple of steps further in providing weekly mentorship, private lessons, access to summer camps, upgraded instruments, everything they’ll need, and making a commitment to those students until they graduate from high school.”

Thompson said he believes his organization is well positioned to enhance the annual Marian Anderson award with its year-round, boots-on-the-ground educational programs.

“We could provide not only the weekly mentorship to the young people, but we could also provide consistent stewardship of donors and supporters, and the larger community throughout the city,” he said. “And I think, build long term relationships to help sustain the award for many years to come.”

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