The Big Canvas in West Chester

Citizen blogger Whitney Hoffman attended The Big Canvas community forum held Sept. 22 in West Chester. The more than 20 participants discussed ideas for a regional strategy to fund arts and culture. Her personal blog is LDPodcast. She writes:

The Great Expectations Project: The Big Canvas is a series of public forums about the arts and cultural assets of our region, and how we can formulate a civic “to do” list of what’s most important to the community.  The outcome from these discussions will help set priorities for funding arts and cultural in the region as well, beyond just Center City.


The first phase of the Big Canvas was to brain storm ideas about what was fantastic about the arts and culture scene in the region, and what was not, as well as put together suggestions to solve some of the thorny problems regarding transportation, access, cost and funding.


The second phase of Big Canvas has just begun. It has taken the conversations of this summer and formulated them into five separate approaches toward addressing problems facing the arts and culture in the area. Citizens are meeting across the area to discuss these approaches and try to identify which ones have the greatest support: What seems practical, and what seems like a dream? Which one would you be willing to support with your tax dollars, and which ones would you not?


The project will culminate in The Big Canvas Confab, Dec. 6, 2008, at the Valley Forge Convention Center, where the work of the Great Expectations project will be presented to civic leaders from across the area.  Civic leaders and the citizens will be able to meet and discuss their priorities, letting leaders really understand what the public wants, what will get the greatest support, and how leaders from different communities can work together to make the “to do” list a reality.


The Sept. 22 forum at Chester County Book and Music Co. in West Chester was attended by more than 20 people from the community.  The focus in this second phase of the Big Canvas was to discuss the four approaches arrived at after the initial meetings this summer, but also including a fifth approach, which is essentially to maintain the status quo.  Interestingly enough, Sept. 22nd also marked the release of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s 2008 Portfolio, showing us the state of cultural institutions in the region, and how funds are currently being spent. 


The key findings show:

-Cultural institutions grew at twice the rate of inflation over the past decade;

-Suburban organizations are growing faster, at three times the rate of inflation;

-Operating margins are very thin, with income exceeding expenses by only 5 percent in 2005, up only 2 percent from a decade earlier.

-Institutions employ a large number of part-timers over full-time employees by a 2:1 margin, with part-time employment increasing 98 percent between 1995 and 2005.

-The ratio of state to federal support was even in 1995; in 2005, state support has increased more than 144 percent, in part, I would imagine, to help make up for a decline of 72 percent in federal funding, bringing the ratio of state support to federal support to 9:1.

-Forty percent of cultural organizations operate at a deficit, and 22 percent operate at a deficit greater than 10 percent of their total revenues.

-On average, 8 percent of the budget is spent on fund-raising, and for every dollar spent, the organization receives $9 in return.

-Visits to cultural organizations total more than 15 million, representing four visits per year for every resident of Southeastern PA.

-The arts are a bargain, with a median ticket price of $14, although costs to produce the events are often closer to $46, and 43 percent of all visits are free of charge.


I think it’s important to highlight these facts in order to get a sense of what is the current state of arts and culture in the region, so the conversations going on throughout the community and at the Big Canvas Confab have some context, as we try to ferret out priorities, especially when the fiscal crisis nationally means less money may be available to support projects of all kinds.


The group I spent the most time with last night came from throughout Chester and Delaware Counties.  The participants were passionate about the arts, both as participants and as patrons, including Debra from the Coatesville Area Arts Alliance, Ken from West Goshen, Jim and Marsha from Malvern, and Richard, who was a musician living in West Philly.


The four approaches discussed were:


  1. To extend the arts and cultural experience to more people in the region, without being apologetic for making arts and culture a priority.  Funds should be earmarked to support artists, art-making, and address access issues by reducing barriers to access, like transportation and entrance fee issues.  Casinos and sports teams were targeted as possible sources of tax revenue to help fund the arts and projects, including a better Community Calendar to help let people know about what’s happening in their area.
  2. This approach focused on children and education, by providing more opportunities for arts education, youth programs, and making it easier and cheaper to take children to events throughout the region.
  3. This approach would focus on building and nurturing the creative economy of the region, to help attract and keep young people in the area, rather than leaving for other cities that have a more focused arts and cultural community.  This would mean focusing on a few bigger projects rather than on a lot of smaller ones, revising SEPTA schedules to meet the needs of suburban patrons and new residents of the area, and help support regional arts festivals with national reach to attract more people to the area, and make Southeastern PA and Philly a special place for people to make their home.
  4. This approach would make the arts a more integral part of every community, as part of increasing the quality of life for all citizens.  This could involve promoting green values and curbing suburban sprawl.  This approach would also seek to bring different pats of the community together, so that what’s happening in one area, say, Chester County, is not isolated from what’s happening in Bucks County.
  5. This approach would be simply to leave the status quo and not change anything regarding arts and culture in the region.


My overarching impression was that while the four approaches sparked lots of discussion and interest, the commonalities were the most fascinating.  Almost everyone seemed to agree that art and cultural institutions were vital to quality of life, and provided a constructive alternative for young people, rather than just hanging out at the mall.  However, access issues prevent young people from going to the Art Museum or walking through Longwood Gardens, let alone helping them see this as something “cool” to do with their friends.  These access issues, ranging from transportation to costs, limit the ability for people to take a chance and go to a gallery or experience something new.


Communication of what’s available on a weekly or monthly basis was also a concern.  Beyond the Philly Fun Guide, and the “Arts & Culture” calendar in newspapers (often with microscopic listings), there’s no easy way for me to find out what’s happening in Coatesville or Bucks County.  And while I may know a bit more about what’s happening in my own community, what’s happening in adjoining communities is not as readily available.  This bottleneck of awareness and communication about what’s already happening in the area is as much a problem as who is going to pay for it.


One of the best ideas I heard all night came initially from Ann Moss, who regularly travels into the city for art events and volunteers at local nonprofits, and then everyone started joining in and throwing out ideas that would make this a great series of events. She suggested that there be some sort of regional traveling arts festival, where groups from all over the region would go to Malvern, Reading, Philly, West Chester, Paoli, Glenside and Bryn Mawr, Morrisville and Kennett Square – everywhere - showcasing all there is to see and do, as well as how to get there and what is costs.


The festival would both showcase what the groups do, and take a hands-on approach to get people excited about their group and offerings.  After all, if the people who run the groups need help making the community aware and excited about their offerings in order to survive, then by going into new communities, you spread the reach of your organization beyond the neighbors.  This way, we could meet the goals of both bringing the arts to the people, as well as encouraging people to explore the arts both at the festival and afterward.


While this idea strays a bit from each of the more rigid approaches suggested above, it was exciting to think how something like this festival could both expose new people of all ages to the richness of opportunities in the area, while being close to home.  It might encourage families to take some risks and explore what our region has to offer, beyond a once-a-year field trip to the museum.  It might help make the arts community more accessible to people that would otherwise be intimidated about attending an orchestra concert or taking a class.


I hope you will attend the other Big Canvas events in the region, and attend the Big Canvas Confab on Dec. 6th and the Valley Forge Convention Center.  We need to spend more time and effort looking at how we can come together and enjoy the riches we have in the community.  And by participating in the Big Canvas, you can help set the priorities for making this happen.