The African American Museum in Philadelphia (Wikimedia Commons)

In a video address on May 1, Philadelphia’s mayor Jim Kenny introduced a revised budget for 2021 that would completely eliminate funds for the city’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy. The move has prompted outcry from hundreds of local arts organizations that now face an uncertain future.

According to Kenny, the city is facing a deficit of $649 million in the coming fiscal year, five times the deficit caused by the financial crisis of 2008. The drastic cuts are necessary, according to the Mayor, because the city is legally prohibited from carrying a deficit. If passed, the city’s $4.4 million budget for arts and culture will be reduced to a resounding zero.

“This is not what I want for our residents — and I understand if this leaves many of you angry,” Kenny said. “Frankly, I’m angry too. But after that anger fades, we must remember exactly what we are dealing with. What we have is both a pandemic and an economic catastrophe.” The proposed budget awaits approval in a City Council vote by July 1.

Kenny’s announcement follows Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s controversial decision to rescind grants that were awarded to arts groups around the state, another crushing blow to the cultural sector in the City of Brotherly Love. The freeze, announced in April, slashed about $1.7 million in grants to more than 80 organizations, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In response, leaders of local arts and culture organizations in Philadelphia released a petition last week calling on the mayor to reverse his decision. The petition has garnered more than 12,000 signatures to date.

“To completely eliminate an office that supports a vital industry in the city of Philadelphia, especially one that has been hit very hard during this crisis, is short sighted and should be reversed,” the petition reads. “Most of this industry has been shut down during this crisis and needs support now more than ever to rebound during the economic recovery.”

“While we had anticipated cuts in our budget, we haven’t anticipated being zeroed out,” said Patricia Wilson Aden, the African American Museum’s president and CEO (courtesy the African American Museum Philadelphia)

The proposed cuts will have a profound impact on art institutions like the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP). Established in 1976, it was the first museum funded and built by the city.

“While we had anticipated cuts in our budget, we haven’t anticipated being zeroed out,” Patricia Wilson Aden, AAMP’s President and CEO, told Hyperallergic in an interview.

AAMP receives about $230,000 in city funds every year, which amounts to 18% of its administrative budget (the budget allocated to salaries, visitor services expenses, and other vital costs. The museum’s overall operating budget is about $2.8 million.)

“In the past several years, we have purposely reduced our dependence upon public funding from the city and from the state because we knew that the ongoing sustainability of the museum would be strengthed if we had corporate support foundations and support of individuals as well,” Aden said. However, individual and corporate donations are usually restricted to programming, not paying salaries and operational costs.

“We will continue to offer programming but the bedrock of our administrative funding will be cut by a considerable amount,” said Aden.

AAMP is home to a collection of more than 750,000 objects that include archival materials related to the Philadelphia Black Panthers and the Civil Rights Movement, burial records from the Ku Klux Klan, and other items documenting the history and culture of Black Americans and people of the African Diaspora. The museum also holds changing exhibitions and community activities.  

Like other museums in the city, AAMP closed its doors when the COVID-19 lockdown started on March 13 and shifted to online programming. Towards the end of March, it terminated its hourly workers, reduced salaries of remaining staff by 10%-20%, and planned to furlough other staff members. But in April the museum applied for a Payment Protection Plan (PPP) and received a $252,000 loan that allowed it to rehire its staff and scrap the planned furloughs, at least until the end of June.

“The African American Museum will continue,” Aden reassured, but said she worries about the damage that will be caused to the cultural life of the city’s people of color.

“This is a time when the city has to focus on the health of its citizens, making sure that health and education are prioritized, but we all know that arts and culture contribute to the revitalization of a city after a challenging period,” Aden said. “It’s especially important that we have arts and culture to assist in the recovery of the African American community. The Black and brown communities have always looked to arts and culture to uplift during times of hardship. We want to make sure that our resources are not so depleted that we won’t be able to assist in that recovery.”

Christina Vassallo, the executive director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum in the city, is another leading voice against Kenny’s proposed budget.

Vassallo’s museum will lose a combined sum of $30,000 in city and state funds, a softer blow compared to AAMP’s losses, but still significant amount for a mid-size arts organization of its kind.

“I’m more concerned about the symbolic effect that these cuts will have,” Vassallo told Hyperallergic in an interview. “They paint this picture that the arts are not necessary for our recovery.”

The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia (Photo by Jessi Melcer)

The Office of Arts and Culture is the leading source of funding for free public events for the community, according to Vassallo. Without these funds, she sees a bleak future for the city’s cultural life.

“At this time of rising unemployment, Philadelphians need and seek free cultural opportunities,” she said. “There will be an increased demand for our work.”

With an operating budget of almost $4 million (which factors in free admission), the Fabric Workshop and Museum will be able to survive the crisis, Vassallo said. But that won’t be the case for small grassroots arts organizations in the city.

“For so many of these organizations, city funding is what keeps them going,” she said. “Once you allow a culture and arts office to dissolve in a city, it’s nearly impossible to get it back. The political will that is required to create that is immense.”

Together with other leaders of arts organizations in the city, Vassallo and Aden are lobbying city officials to reverse the budget cuts while urging members of the community to do the same. The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which distributes grants to 300 organizations, is acting to reverse the budget cuts on the state level.

“We are still engaged in conversations with the city that will hopefully result in the reinstatement of some portion of our funding,” Aden said. “It’s not over yet.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

3 replies on “Philadelphia Mayor Proposes Arts Budget of Zero, a Crushing Blow to Local Institutions”

  1. Considering that the pro teams, players, and leagues in Philly make 1000x as much as this paltry $4.4 million, how about they step up and pay for the year? Ha! April Fools!

  2. When Arts funding is slashed, and this is beyond slashing, crime rates go up, and livability goes down. Shortsighted, economy driven bureaucrats have this information at hand, yet arts funding is always the first to go, never to return. When crime rises and the city becomes unsafe and unattractive to live in, and downtown becomes skid row, then they start to howl. But not for sustaining arts programs that attract visitors, and their citizens can enjoy and immerse themselves in, but for more cops and bigger jails. It is the American way, even in the city of brotherly love.

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