Not Just Sour Grapes Over Philadelphia Cultural Fund's 2013 Appropriations

Philadelphia Cultural Fund (PCF) held a soiree at City Hall not long ago to announce the list of 244 groups who will collectively receive $1.6 million this coming year. Prominently absent from the list was Community Education Center (CEC) of Philly's Powelton Village neighborhood, an organization the fund had consistently supported in the past. It's a classic "If you didn't bring enough for the entire class, should you share any at all?" type of issue.

After City Councilwomen Jannie Blackwell and Maria Quinones-Sanchez stood up about it, the fund apologetically restored some funding to CEC. But the backlash didn't stop there. PCF's own founding board member Joel Stein rent them asunder this month in the Broad Street Review.

Stein's critique of PCF provides valuable insight into the current condition of arts funding in Philadelphia. He argues Philadelphia arts funders like the Pew Charitable Trust (see Pew Charitable Trusts: Grants for Philadelphia) and the William Penn Foundation (see William Penn Foundation: Grants for Philadelphia) have "elitist criteria" for evaluating grant applications that "often exclude[s] small, middle-sized and emerging arts groups." These donors mostly support "special projects or performances" nowadays, which they find "sexier than funding basic operations."

Emulating these larger donors' behaviors, Stein feels the ideology behind PCF's grant making has become too "corporate," as opposed to artistic. He expected better of PCF and considers their choice to defund a small group like CEC a violation of "egalitarian spirit." If these smaller programs cannot depend on PCF for consistent financial support, they've got no one else.

His suggestion to PCF is blunt: "stop funding Philadelphia’s largest arts/cultural organizations." They can probably make it on their own. And besides,

"Thanks to their full-time development staffs, [these bigger projects] enjoy ready access to national and regional foundations like the Pews and William Penns, not to mention corporations and rich donors. The Cultural Fund now doles out annual $10,000 grants to almost two dozen groups with annual budgets above $5 million— groups for whom $10,000 hardly makes a difference. One Cultural Fund board member recently acknowledged as much to me, saying these largest groups justified their continuing Cultural Fund grants as "symbolic."

In the hands of a large arts company, a donation of that size amounts to little more than a vote of confidence. To a smaller neighborhood program, that money could be what keeps them a nose-hair's length above water.