Monday, December 29, 2014

Life, Life, Love

Parting observations of Phila.'s culture czar

Gary Steuer, chief cultural officer , off to a job in Denver. Among his wishes, he says, is that the city could take better advantage of its enormous claim to African American history.
Gary Steuer, chief cultural officer , off to a job in Denver. Among his wishes, he says, is that the city could take better advantage of its enormous claim to African American history. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

As the City of Philadelphia's culture czar since 2008, Gary Steuer probably understands the particular quirks, vulnerabilities, and victories of the arts community as well as anyone. His tenure started a few weeks into the Great Recession, and now, just as the economy is stirring, he's moving on, next month becoming president and CEO of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation in Denver.

In his five years at City Hall, Steuer moved easily among arts managers, fund-raising professionals, philanthropists, mural artists, and student musicians, and showed up for breakfast one recent morning with a scribbled pad of distilled observations.

Amiable as always, he nonetheless rattled off a list of civic shortcomings that echoes what many others privately say stands in the way of the arts fulfilling their potential.

"We clearly have a supply-and-demand issue, both from an audience and a philanthropic standpoint," says Steuer, whose official title is chief cultural officer and director of the City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy.

He wishes, he says, that the city could take better advantage of its enormous claim to African American history, and is concerned about the fragility of some of the organizations that tend that heritage. He worries about an aging arts-and-culture donor base. He frets about the lack of a conservation and maintenance program for the 1,200 or so pieces of city-owned art.

And he wonders how the region can somehow raise the bar on how it regards the arts-philanthropy relationship.

"The refrain I've heard among development directors is that they identify someone who is capable of giving a six-figure gift, and then they haggle with him over what the recognition will be for a thousand-dollar gift. It's about what I get for this gift rather than how can I support you. Somehow, that culture needs to be changed."

He concedes that City Hall itself should have a fatter budget for arts and culture. Currently, Philadelphia spends less than $7 million a year, including his office's budget, as well as grants to groups - paltry compared with, say, San Francisco's $47 million allocation, or Miami-Dade County's $30 million.

"When you look at how individuals make decisions about where to live and businesses decide where to go, quality of life is it, and yet the city has consistently underfunded the arts. Somehow, we have to recognize collectively that having great parks, libraries, and arts and culture are all part of making the city blossom."

At the same time, he points out, basic needs are going unfulfilled. Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate - 27 percent - of any large U.S. city.

"It's easy to be blinded by the growth of Center City, and all that's fantastic. But patrons and board members don't go into other areas of the city, and so it's important for groups to be thinking about how they can be part of the solution, which is also part of how we solve the [arts] funding problem."

In other words, those groups that can align their work with social aims - demonstrating commitment to a larger public good - are the ones that will attract funding from foundations, individuals, and corporations, as well as government. "If political leaders see a greater investment in the arts as something that will serve the citizens, then they can get behind that. Some organizations are doing it, others are not."

Steuer cites the Mural Arts Program as a classic example of dovetailing the artistic and the social. But he also praises the Philadelphia Museum of Art for activities that "make them less an art palace on the hill," describing the opening party for a 2012 show by photographer Zoe Strauss that drew something other than the expected demographic: "There were 2,000 people, all of them under 30 except for me. It was phenomenal."

If you think visual arts provide more entry points than classical music, Steuer can point to innovation there, too - in Chicago, where the Chicago Sinfonietta teamed with the folk-rock act Poi Dog Pondering on a remix of themes from Carmen. "It was a rock audience, it was a Latino audience, it was African American, it was classical." The future of funding, he says, belongs to groups that can extend their reach - geographically, programmatically, demographically.

"You want to break down the barriers that make these palaces intimidating."

- Peter Dobrin

Peter Dobrin Inquirer Classical Music Critic
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