By Jeffrey Bussmann
In a series of feature articles published by the Philadelphia Inquirer this fall, Peter Dobrin, the paper’s utility player cultural critic, investigated the health of our local arts organizations and the network of donors who do the heavy lifting to keep them funded. If a reader came to these articles knowing nothing of arts and culture in Philadelphia, he or she would be forgiven for thinking that hulking institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Please Touch Museum, and the Kimmel Center are the only games in town. Dobrin’s articles largely ignored the presence and vibrancy of small-to-medium arts organizations in the city, as well as artist-run spaces, which are usually unincorporated. Regrettably, this means that to much of the high-capacity philanthropic base in Philadelphia, the “little” guys are all but invisible. If Citywide can provide one common benefit to its participants, I hope that it is strength in numbers.
The argument goes that large museums and performing arts organizations serve the greatest number of people; thus, it follows that they receive a disproportionate share of attention and funding. This is not to say that they do not merit it. PMA deserves every cent of earned and contributed income it receives (and more). For a professional fundraiser, perhaps the most frustrating public misconception is that a well-funded nonprofit does not need any more money. It is positively gobsmacking to have heard this from the lips of educated individuals. As we often dismissively say in this business, some people are philanthropic and others are not. It has very much to do with personal role models. My view has always been that all arts organizations are chronically underfunded, but some more than others.
What then are the funding prospects for an organization which does not have a major donor like Gerry Lenfest or Joe Neubauer on its board of trustees? Moreover, what is the realistic hope of taking home a sliver of the pie if you lack even a 501(c)3 status? The Knight Foundation offered hope via its recently concluded three-year Arts Challenge. Citywide is itself a worthy beneficiary of this grant track. Unsurprisingly, established organizations with very traditional proposals took home the most generous awards from Knight. In a similar vein, the 2012 Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, national in scope, found a local beneficiary in our own Inquirer. Though ostensibly looking for the best new ideas about how to reverse shrinking arts coverage and reinvigorate the field by fostering new technologic platforms, the foundation in reality used the grant to chuck a meager life-preserver to troubled newspapers that have laid off experienced journalists and still do not know how to sustainably monetize their internet brands. Should anyone have been naïve enough to expect differently from a foundation that was founded by powerful newspaper editors? Art Attack, the resulting Inquirer project, is shocking—a simple equation of more volume being less substance.
Perhaps it would be patronizing for me to glamorize the relative poverty (in cash, not in creativity) of Philadelphia’s galleries and troupes that run on a shoestring. In some way, I must envy their programmatic freedom and structural nimbleness. My co-editors and I enjoy similar benefits at Title Magazine, just as we are circumscribed by the same limitations of funding and capacity. The vastness of Philadelphia’s art ecology, replete with ever-emerging pockets of new development, means that we and all others contributing to written dialogue on the local arts can only hope to scratch the surface. It is this constant battle to keep up which keeps me excited about Philadelphia and motivated to experience as much as I can. If the day comes when I feel that I have seen it all, I will know it is time to move on.
Jeffrey Bussmann works at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently completing his master’s thesis on the subject of early video art in Brazil.