Music Feature

City Hall Presents!

by Joshua Pelta-Heller
Philly's Arts & Cultural "Czar" Gary Steuer Talks Promoting Art in the Context of an Economic Recovery. Photos by Josh Pelta-Heller

From City Hall's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy comes "City Hall Presents," a program designed to feature and promote local artists of all kinds.  Promoted by Little Giant Media, the series kicks off with an inaugural event this Wednesday, March 28th, featuring Philly's Youth Poetry Movement.

We spoke with Philly's Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer about the program, his office's initiatives and mission, and about Philly's long artistic legacy, leading the way for other urban hubs large and small.

215 Magazine:  Could you tell me about “City Hall Presents,” how it was conceived and what it’s intended to do?

Gary Steuer:  The arts office here has for many years had a program called “Art In City Hall,” that is a program of juried exhibitions of visual art in City Hall.  One of the things I initiated when we recreated this office was recognizing that we needed an actual gallery space that was on the first floor that was accessible to the public.  So in addition to the juried art exhibitions where the art has to be exhibited in display cases because of bad lighting and security issues, we now have an actual gallery space where we can properly exhibit art.  We can also do three-dimensional art, and kind of unusual installation pieces -- right now we have an installation of yarn bombing that’s part of fiber Philadelphia -- but there was still something missing, which is that we now had a great, robust visual arts program in City Hall, but we were not representing the performing arts in city hall.  One of the things that we felt was really important -- and this actually initially came from the mayor, and a strategic direction of the office -- he felt that we really needed to look at how we could enliven city hall through the performing arts.  And, meetings of the Mayor’s cultural advisory council, which is my advisory body, people from the performing arts who serve on the advisory council were saying, “what you do in City Hall is symbolic, and right now you’re representing the visual arts in City Hall, but you’re not representing the full spectrum of arts in City Hall.  

So we began developing plans for what has become “City Hall Presents,” which is presentation of a series of performing arts events covering all types of performing art forms from spoken word to theater to dance to all types of music including classical, indie rock, etc., that will take place in a variety of locations within city hall.  We’re gonna be using the courtyard in the warmer months -- a grand public space that really has I think been too little used -- as a music destination, for events that will all take place in the early evenings, with the idea to create a great arts opportunity for people right after they finish work before they go home, roughly 5:30 to 6:30.  In the Spring and Fall, we will be doing performances within City Hall.  We have two great formal spaces -- the Mayor’s Reception Room and Conversation Hall -- again beautiful, ornate, gorgeous, historic rooms that have very rarely been used for anything but ceremonial functions and haven’t really been open to the public.  Obviously the stuff that’s indoors will have a smaller audience capacity, and probably different art forms will work better indoors -- quieter things like chamber music or spoken word will work better in the indoor locations; things like amplified music will work better in the courtyard.  These will be free performances.

215: Will you be stipulating that these people are all artists from Philly, or studying in Philly?

G.S.: Absolutely, it’s all Philadelphia artists.  We have had an open application process, and we’ve reached out to the entire arts community and said if you’re an arts organization or if you’re an individual artist, and you would like to be considered for this, there’s an online form that people fill out.  They go into the database, and we then try to curate a season that will cover as many bases as we can.  We want multiple art forms to be represented, we want the diversity of philadelphia cultures to be represented, we want large organizations, small organizations -- there’s a lot of different criteria that we want to use as we construct the full schedule.

215:  There’s an honorarium of up to $500 per night -- is that per artist who comes to perform, or per group?

G.S.: It’s per performance.  We recognize it’s not a lot of money, but we felt it was important that the artist get paid.  These are free events, and in some cases -- for example with the arts organizations that are being presented as part of City Hall Presents, they may have funding from other sources that compensates them.  So we recognize that if we bring in for example the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, what we’re paying them in the honorarium doesn’t begin to cover the cost of the artist, and if they still want to participate then they would have to find funding elsewhere to cover it.  In the case of an independent musician, it’s a different story.  I shuold say also that the program would not have been possible without the Kinght Foundation’s Knight Arts  Challenge, as well as the William Penn Foundation that matched their funding.  So it’s really this outside funding that allows us to do this program.

215: So this is not publicly funded?

G.S.: It is not publicly funded at all, it’s funded through the generosity of two foundations.  Again, it’s the sort of thing that in the future, I would love to be in a situation where the city supports this itself as part of what a city does. I think  philosophically at least within this administration, the city would love to be able to support it directly out of the city budget, but it was just clear that at this point in time that wasn’t gonna happen, and I wanted to make this happen now, I didn’t want to wait around until the economy’s better and perhaps city funding would be available.  Basically what we contribute is the staff time from the office that goes into working on this.

215: Is that significant?

G.S.: I haven’t calculated it, but it’s a significant component of what we’re doing.  This is something that I’m working on, that Josh [Dubin] is working on, that Moira Baylson, my deputy, is working on as well.  And then of course we have other aspects of the city, our public property department that manages city facilities has their staff that are working on this as well, so we have the staff of the people that are doing maintenance, the people that are doing sound, the set up and take down of the stage, the set up of the PA system, so there are a lot of things that are sort of part of how the city is supporting this even if they’re not actually putting cash in.

215:  Have you guys gone into the public school or charter school system looking for artists?

G.S.: We really haven’t.  We’ve reached out to both non-profit arts organizations and individual artists, so it’s possible that word has filtered out into those worlds.  And certainly some of the groups that we’re looking at might involve youth as the performers -- actually the first performance I believe is gonna feature the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, all young spoken word artists.  We’ve talked about the youth ensembles at the Clef Club -- there are some amazing young jazz musicians that are involved in the jazz programs at the Clef Club, or the education program at the Kimmel Center.  So we’re gonna be looking for those opportunities to engage young people as part of the performances and so my guess would be that as we put this whole season together that there would be some representation of youth.  Whether it’s gonna be an ensemble from a charter school or something like that, I couldn’t say. 

For more information and a schedule of events, visit the City Hall Presents Website!  


215:  You’re the “Cultural Czar” of Philadelphia -- what does that entail?

GS: Well, it’s not my official title, needless to say -- my title is Chief Cultural Officer!  I run the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.  Basically what it means is, I’m charged by the Mayor with overseeing the city’s cultural activities, the city’s own direct investments in arts and culture, but also the city’s efforts to ensure a strong, healthy, vibrant cultural and creative sector.  So that includes not just non-profit arts organizations, but also individual artists as well as for-profit creative businesses.

215:  I imagine that’s a difficult thing to do in this economy.  I know that once we hit a recession in general, the first thing to go are Arts Programs.  What do you guys do to counter that, and to come out of this recent recession?

G.S.  It certainly is a challenge. The office was created in 2008 after Mayor Nutter was elected, and I started in October of 2008.  There had been an Office of Arts and Culture in the city, but it was actually closed by the previous mayor, John Street.  So this was sort of both a new office, but also in some ways a reopening or reimagining of a previous office.  And in some ways, the timing couldn’t have been worse, because we were opening this new office with a major commitment to the sector, while at the same time the economy was going down the tubes and we had real challenges in terms of the resources that were available to invest.  So we’ve had to be focused on how we could be innovative, creative and strategic in doing what we do, recognizing that we weren’t gonna have a lot of money to solve the challenge.  Certain things helped -- for example, the William Penn Foundation, which is extremely supportive of the city and the cultural sector, recognized that the office would be challenged in terms of the resources that it had available, so they helped with some private support that’s allowed us to do some things that were strategically important.  That private funding there we just wouldn’t have been able to do, so that’s been really really helpful.  It’s been helpful to have a mayor who’s been extremely supportive of our efforts and what we’re trying to do.  So it’s not that we haven’t been cut, but certainly the arts budgets have not been decimated.  There have been cuts, but they’ve been sort of in line with other things of a comparable nature that have had to be cut, and I think it’s something that for the most part the arts sector has looked at, and respected, and understood that, which is why you haven’t seen major demonstrations or major advocacy efforts around the cuts that we’ve taken, because the hit that we’ve taken is sort of the kinds of hits that other things in the city have taken, and so you know we’ve had to be creative and arts groups have had to be creative, and we have been able to find certain sources of new funding.  For example, the community development block grant program of HUD -- the federal agency -- received a big infusion of funds as part of the recovery act, and a portion of those funds came to Philadelphia, and we were able to convince the city agency that administers those funds locally, that a portion of that should be directed to creative economy.  So we were able to get about half a million dollars in recovery funding to go specifically to the creation of creative economy workspaces., and we were able to fund I think eight different projects throughout the city, where facilities were being developed that would accommodate creative sector businesses, both nonprofit arts groups and also individual artist’s studios and for-profit creative businesses.  And we use frankly the power of the bully pulpit a lot, which is the capacity that we have to be in the right places, to say the right things, to encourage others to to the right things, and to ensure that the mayor is doing that as well.  The mayor has been a very visible public spokesperson, as well as a presence -- actually showing up at events, actually staying through the concert, or going through the art exhibit, and that means a lot too.

215:  And you would say that this mayor in contrast to previous mayors is much more supportive to the arts scene in Philadelphia?

G.S.: Well, I think there’s been an ebb and a flow to that.  Certainly Ed Rendell, when he was mayor, was extremely supportive of the arts, and spearheaded the avenue of the arts.

215: Did he start the office originally?

G.S.: No, it was actually started in the Wilson Goode administration, in 1986, a little over 25 years ago, so it existed through multiple mayoral administrations, and then was shut down for a period of about five years during the two-term Street administration.

215:  Was there a reason for that shut down?

G.S.:  I wasn’t around at that point, so I can’t say.  Some of the legally-mandated components of what the office did, like administering the city’s percent for art program continued during the time when the office was shut down, but there just wasn’t a central cultural office.  The thing that this mayor changed were first, he made it a cabinet level position, so the position of Chief Cultural Officer at the cabinet level is brand new.  In previous administrations, the person running the office was sort of lower down in the government bureaucracy, and not reporting directly to the Mayor, so that’s a big change.  And the other big change is adding creative economy to the charge of the office.  Now, we’re really looking at the whole creative sector, and not just the health of non-profit arts organizations.  Not that non-profit arts groups aren’t important, but we just recognize that creative activity happens in lots of different ways with lots of different corporate structures, and the creative juice, the creative energy and vitality of the city is not just dependent on the Art Museum or non-profit art galleries or the Kimmel Center or other types of non-profit arts entities -- theater companies, dance companies, etc. -- it’s also dependent our music clubs, it’s also dependent on our graphic design firms and our architecture firms.  So, we’re really looking at this whole sort of ecosystem of creativity within the city, and that’s sort of a different and new way of looking at it.  I think Philadelphia is at the forefront in this -- most cultural offices of other cities are still really focused on the non-profit arts sector.

215:  So, shifting focus from politics to a more social perspective -- it’s widely accepted to cut arts programs as one of the first things to go in a recession, or in times like these, what would you say to people with respect to the value of arts in a community or in a major metropolitan area?

G.S.: Well, I would say, even if you personally don’t care at all about the arts, or don’t find that they resonate for you, just from a purely practical standpoint, in a tough economy or any economy, the arts are critical to the health of the community and the local economy in a number of different ways.  Ways that I think have become fairly well known are things like attraction of tourists.  So, clearly, the communities that have vibrant cultural sectors are better able to attract tourists.  Those tourists don’t just patronize those arts organizations, they also stay in hotels, they also eat in restaurants, they also go shopping.  So the combination of the economic impact of visitorship that’s drawn by cultural tourism is huge, it goes far beyond just the cultural sector itself.  so, the arts are an important part of that.  the arts are also an important part of the larger economy of a city in the sense that they themselves are actually generating economic activity, jobs, and actually taxes, because even though the non-profit arts groups aren’t paying taxes, their patrons are paying sales tax, wage tax is still being paid, and again many of the business that are part of that larger creative ecosystem are for-profits and so they are paying taxes.  But finally, and this is the point that i think this city gets, but not everybody necessarily gets and  it’s important that the broader general public understand it -- the same things that make a city attractive to visitors, to tourists, make a city attractive to people to want to live there, to want to stay there.  And this is statistically true in terms of attraction/retention of workers and businesses -- the cultural amenities -- and it’s not just just arts and culture specifically, it’s heritage, it’s the built environment, great architecture, great parks, great waterfront, all of those things added together, those sort of quality-of-life investments, are what attract businesses, are what attract workers.  increasingly, as you look at generational differences, the work force that are in their 20s and 30s make decisions first about where they want to live, and second about getting a job.  And so having a city that they view as a city they want to live in is critically important because the businesses and jobs will follow.

215:  Last question -- Philadelphia characteristically sort of feels its own inferiority complex in terms of metropolitan areas -- contrasted with New York or more world class cities.  But for some reason, it seems to have a long legacy of art -- it has the most public art in the country, it has the most murals in the country, it’s got movements from the jazz scene to the Philadelphia Sound on Broad street, just decades of this legacy -- what do you think Philly gets about art that other cities of its size or stature don’t seem to get, and why do you think it leads the way?

G.S.: I think it really does lead the way!  The readers of Travel and Leisure magazine just this past year, late 2011, rated Philadelphia the number one city for culture in America, above New York, above San Francisco, above Chicago, above Boston, above Washington DC, a lot of the cities that are usually rated higher than Philadelphia, and so I think that inferiority complex is starting to change, for one, I would say that’s definitely changing.  Although, Philadelphians still rank Philadelphia lower than visitors to the city, than outsiders view it.  I think Philadelphians have a hard time kind of seeing the strengths and the assets of the city.  But I think that creative vibrancy really goes back to the roots of the city, I mean it’s sort of in the DNA of the city in a certain way, in that it was the city where, not to be trite, but where democracy was invented, where the country was invented!  The mayor likes to joke sometimes that when he’s in Washington he’ll talk about the fact that Philadelphia has existed longer than the United States of America, and even though that can seem flip, there’s sort of an underlying philosophy about it which is that it’s a city where people dared, and people took risks, and people were creative and innovative.  I mean, he’s become sort of a stereotype, but Benjamin Franklin was a crazy renaissance guy!  I mean, he was a creator, an innovator, he was doing all kinds of crazy stuff.  I think that history is kind of within the city, and it’s easy to forget that, it’s easy to see all that historical stuff as all that kind of “historical, Independence-Mall, that’s-just-for-the-tourists,” but I think within that is kind of an approach to life that became part of the city and part of how it operated that led to the 19th century when the city was known as the “workshop to the world!”  This was the city where stuff got designed and made, and it was sort of the design center of the world, from fashion to furniture, to machinery, this was the place where things were made!  Foundaries, factories, and again, that spirit, of creativity and innovation became part of the city, and now i think in the 20th and 21st century, that manifests itself in different ways, through art and culture, through creative economy -- through the scene here of web design, app design, the intersection of science and art and technology that I think is really rich and cool in Philadelphia right now, in sort of a whole new burgeoning Philadelphia maker’s community of handcrafted small-production things that are made here -- so I think that philosophy is still reflected within Philadelphia! 

For more information and a schedule of events, visit the City Hall Presents Website! 

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