Commentary: Don't Let Trump Bring Down the Arts by Barbara Silzle, Philadelphia Cultural Fund
Monday, April 17, 2017
Posted by: Amy Seasholtz
Art is action. A local culture leader urges us to keep it alive in Philly.
By Barbara Silzle
In my line of work, I often hear that issues surrounding the arts are not urgent problems to be solved. But what if, as a society, we viewed the arts as a problem solving mechanism? I recently heard the story of an 8th grade girl who was lacking confidence and an outlet in which to make her voice heard, who joined the Philadelphia Young Playwright,. Through her experience with the program, she was able to overcome her fears of being told no; she became a more verbose communicator; and she learned to practice patience and understanding of others’ perspectives
Arts and culture programs do have the power to transform lives. It may not be visible in a quantitative statistic, but over time and across generations, we see the impact that arts and culture has on cities like our very own Philadelphia.
As the implications of President Trump’s budget reverberate and sink in—with its devastating cuts to health, human services and the arts—the arts and culture community stands on shaky ground. It is quite possible that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services will be eliminated all together, for the first time in history. Many foundations and individual donors are rethinking where they will invest their dollars as vital social programs and services are being threatened. According to Americans for the Arts, the NEA’s annual appropriation supports a $730 billion arts and culture industry, 4.8 million jobs and a $26 billion trade surplus for the nation. That’s what is at stake.
All of this spells trouble for the nonprofit sector as a whole and the arts in particular. As the Executive Director of The Philadelphia Cultural Fund, I am uniquely situated to witness the impact that the arts have on Philadelphians and the city itself. We are the primary funder of the largest segment of the arts sector; no other funder, foundation or entity serves the Philadelphia’s arts and cultural sector as broadly.
In March, we awarded unrestricted grants totaling over $2.75 million to 304 nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia that are dedicated to serving our diverse communities through their arts and cultural programming. Imagine that: 304 different organizations, throughout the city, bringing dance, music, theater, arts education, history, writing, community art, visual arts and more, to Philadelphians every day.
Our grantees range from very small to very large organizations, from those who have no paid staff to those who employ many. Whether they attract people from across the world and the country, or are serving the people right in their back yard, whether they are a start up organization or well-established, and whether they have a budget under $10,000 or over $4 million, every single one of Philadelphia’s arts and cultural organizations are contributing to the vitality and health of this city and profoundly impacting the lives of its residents.
These organizations reflect our communities and have the ability to energize and invigorate our city and its people. As Mayor Kenney has said, “The heartbeat of Philadelphia is felt through the dynamic arts and culture experiences produced by local organizations, big and small.”
We know the power of the arts. Philadelphia’s arts and culture organizations are working to educate, inspire, lift and enlighten us every day…our students, seniors, veterans, immigrants, the incarcerated and those formerly incarcerated, the disabled and differently abled. When it can be a struggle to hear one another, the arts are there. When we’re fearful, upset, or feel invisible, the arts are there. When we need laughter, hope, strength, empathy, and connection, the arts are there. When we need to understand the “other,” the arts are there.
Now, we must all stand up and advocate for the arts. I urge you to dig in and go local. You can start by volunteering at the arts organization down the block, or the one you visited once and had a moving experience. They may need someone to stuff envelopes, seat audience members, or bring ideas to the table.
If you have the means to donate, write a check. Every nonprofit arts and culture organization will need your financial support in the years to come. Be your community’s cheerleader, because most small- and mid-size organizations that survived the recession will be faced with big challenges, and they need the community’s financial support.
Pay for a ticket, and pay for someone else’s ticket. Sit in the audience and engage with the art makers. Let yourself be inspired and renewed.
And yes, call your elected officials at the federal, state and city level to voice your commitment to the arts and encourage theirs. Dare yourself to not tune out from all that’s happening. As overwhelming, confusing, hopeless and maddening as it may be, we need you now—locally and vocally.
Art is action. It not only helps us find our voice through self-expression, it has the innate ability to heal us and build our self-confidence. And now, more than ever, we need more action. It’s up to us to put the power back into the hands of the communities. While Washington might say, “No,” Philadelphia will say, ‘Yes!'”
Barbara Silzle is Executive Director of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.