New Chief At Wm. Penn Foundation Is 'For Real' Ken Brecher, The Not-so-staid Head Of The Major Philanthropic Group, Started Off Here With A Humble Tour. (he Now Talks "Two Street.")

Posted: February 13, 1994

When Ken Brecher arrived in town to get the lay of the land and meet the natives, he didn't do what you might expect from the brand-new head of the august William Penn Foundation.

He didn't head for a maximum-visibility lunch at The Palm (at least not first thing, or even second thing).

He didn't swoop down on any society functions to hob and nob and see and be seen.

He was absent from the capacious confines of the Union League and from the cozy boardrooms west of City Hall.

No, Brecher took the bus - SEPTA's very own - up Fifth Street, hopping off every few blocks to sample the flux and flow of neighborhoods from Old City and Northern Liberties up through Kensington and into the barrio above Lehigh Avenue.

Spent a day doing that, talking, listening.

A bit later, he traipsed down to South Philadelphia to hang with the Mummers. And then, on New Year's Day - this is true - he walked up Broad Street with them. Paraded, featherless, but didn't strut.

("I was dressed," Brecher allowed, "very much like the president of a foundation.")

He also haunted the Free Library on Logan Circle for a day, just watching and listening and talking with readers and browsers.

After that he went up to dilapidated, struggling Norris Square off Susquehanna Avenue in Kensington. A lot of Spanish spoken there - no problem, Brecher speaks six languages and can listen in all of them.

The new leader of Philadelphia's second-largest philanthropic entity did all of that before he set one foot in the Mayor's Office or in any conference room atop a blank glass tower.

"This is an unusual man," said Joe Spaulding, chairman of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and head of the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston. "He is absolutely for real."

"He's not anyone's idea of what a foundation president is like," said Kenneth Finkel, curator of prints at the Library Company of Philadelphia, and a new friend of Brecher's and his wife, Rebecca Rickman. "I think it's going to be very good for the community."

At the very least, the new foundation president draws on a variegated experience. After graduating from Cornell in 1967, he went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship (remembers Bill Clinton there as "a good listener") and stayed for 10 years, earning a degree in anthropology and spending two years in the Amazon jungle with the primitive Wausha tribe. He learned the Waushas' language - the first outsider to do so - and witnessed a destructive and

violent clash of cultures when the Trans-Amazon Highway came roaring through the rain forest.

Shaken by that experience, Brecher sought to win sympathy in Washington and London for the indigenous Amazonian people. Playwright Christopher Hampton took Brecher's field research and based his play Savages on it. Involvement with Savages drew Brecher into a different kind of subculture, the theater world; it proved alluring and tantalizing, and he spent the next several years at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles as a producer and associate artistic director.

In 1985, he made another leap, this time to Boston as head of the Children's Museum. "Children," Brecher said, are "a sort of tribe in their own right, with their own shamans, their own mythologies, their own rites of passage."

He built a reputation for innovative programming, for reaching out to all audiences, and for collaborations with other institutions.

"Ken is a child in the best sense," said Jeremy Alliger, executive director and producer of Boston's Dance Umbrella. "He has such a love of discovery, a desire to learn and have new experiences and to include everyone in almost everything he tries to do. . . . I think he is seemingly an eternal optimist about being able to make a difference in the world. He was perfect for the Children's Museum and he will be wonderful for William Penn. His excitement and good will are infectious."

That has translated into a head-first, eyes-and-ears-open plunge into the murky seas of Philadelphia.

"I'm an anthropologist by training and I've spent my life so far using the training in different ways," Brecher said the other day while devouring a stack of blueberry pancakes at the Diner on the Square. (Fashion mode of the day: double-breasted, black-and-white herringbone jacket; black V-neck sweater; olive-green-and-black snakeskin-patterned tie; orangy-red socks with chrome-yellow blots. Is William Penn, which sits in a muted red-brick building at Locust and 17th Streets, ready for this?)

"I said (to the William Penn board): 'What I'd like to do is build on what I've been doing before and take a look at Philadelphia from the point of view of an anthropologist and do field work.' And the only way I know how to do field work - and I've been doing it since I began working in the Amazon in the '70s - is to go into a city and let it reveal itself, most often by not talking to the chief."

Instead of the chief, instead of the hoary elders, this 48-year-old man with perfectly round tortoise-shell glasses that give his pale face the vaguely haunted, vaguely comic look of a surprised lemur, went directly to the laborers and pensioners, the housewives and children - the plain people of the city.

"My favorite day, of the many, was with my father, who's just going to be 80 years old, born in Philadelphia, lived on Gratz Street in North Philadelphia, then moved to West Philadelphia, and we just went from place to place that he had lived in," Brecher recalled. "He was orphaned at the age of 8. . . .

"There was a wonderful moment. We were standing on Gratz Street looking at the house he lived in when both his parents died, tragically, and a woman came out of the house and she said, 'I've had three phone calls to say that there are two white men standing in front of these houses and looking. I'm the block captain, and I'd like to know what you're doing here, if you don't mind my asking.' Very, very lovely woman. And I said, 'This is my father. I've just moved to Philadelphia. He lives in Chicago - he's just here visiting me - and this is the house where he lived and that was his room up there.' And she said, 'Well, let me tell you my history on this block.' She had lived there almost 30 years. It was absolutely wonderful. She couldn't have been more lovely. She said, 'We all own our own houses here. We're very, very proud of these houses. Nobody is renting. We love this street. And we're going to be in the Christmas lights competition this year, please come back.' . . .

"There are natural leaders in every neighborhood and community, very often leaders who are not recognized, or who I might not meet in my official capacity, but who I certainly meet in my unofficial capacity."

In his official capacity, Brecher now sits at the top of a foundation with half a billion dollars in assets and which doled out $35.8 million in grants in 1992. He succeeds Bernard C. Watson, who retired last year after a decade as president.

Millions of dollars, organizations and individuals all over seeking time and money. And here is Brecher schmoozing on a bench in Norris Square, talking Toni Morrison with strangers at the library, learning all about "wenches" in the lexicon of Two Street, venturing to the top of City Hall tower and engaging tourists and visitors in all kinds of conversation. What gives?

"I believe people know what they need to improve their lives - they know what's missing in their lives and they know what's missing in their city," Brecher said. "What am I doing? I'm trying to find a way to understand the city that doesn't come from the usual sources. I'm trying to see what change is really about here. . . . My sense is the most important thing I can do is learn the city, learn to listen to people who are clearly committed to raising children and living in the city in a way that isn't always obvious from sociological studies or from talking to the recognized leaders."


Brecher's arrival at William Penn underscores the change that William Penn faces. Several massive, multiyear foundation projects are winding down - most visibly, its South Broad Street initiative, a $13 million program for construction and renovation of cultural institutions, and its North Philadelphia Initiative, a $26.3 million community revitalization plan.

Where is the foundation heading? How and where should resources be applied? How should grant decisions be made? Who should have a voice in making decisions?

In the arts, one of William Penn's main grant-giving areas, the foundation has come under criticism in recent years for its concentration on big-ticket capital projects - like South Broad Street. There, William Penn has financed the construction of the Arts Bank performance complex at South Street, the Brandywine Graphics Workshop at Fitzwater Street, and the Clef Club jazz center next door to Brandywine; it is also the major force behind the transformation of the historic Ridgeway Library into the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. All of these projects have been incorporated into the city's new vision for a grand Avenue of the Arts stretching a mile down Broad Street from City Hall to Washington Avenue.

There have also been persistent complaints in the cultural community about the tin ear the foundation occasionally turns to those it is trying to serve. Critics have sniffed that the foundation may listen - but basically it does what it wants to do.

"I think the William Penn Foundation needs to figure out what kinds of things are left hanging in the air after South Broad Street," said one veteran arts administrator. "There are lots of things boiling up from the bottom and veering in from the sides that they could look at and learn about instead of setting their own direction."

There is a heightened nervousness in the arts world, as well, about declining contributions to support daily operations.

"It's always hard to talk about funders," said Pearl B. Schaeffer, executive director of the Philadelphia Dance Alliance, a service organization. ''I've always found the William Penn Foundation to be exceedingly receptive. They do a tremendous amount of funding and it's local funding." (William Penn focuses its grant-making on the metropolitan Philadelphia area.)

That said, Schaeffer pointed out that "we are finding it more and more difficult to find general operating funds."

"We would like general operating expenses acknowledged as much as programmatic expenses," she said.

As a matter of policy, William Penn does not provide general operating

funds - money that can be used for paying insurance, electric bills, regular salaries and the like. The foundation will give money to build a new building. It will finance development of a new play. It will pay for a plan to bring in certain artists. But it will not, for the most part, help pay humdrum costs.

Ray Flynt, head of the Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Arts Alliance, lobbying and service organizations based in Harrisburg, said humdrum costs were very much the name of the game these days. Flynt recently participated in several meetings with artists and arts administrators in North and West Philadelphia. What he heard was simple, he said: We need operating money.

"Struggle is a word always used in the same sentence with arts organizations," Flynt said. "Trying to sew the seeds of long-term stability is the key." By giving funds for general operating expenses, he said, programming and technical needs can often be taken care of as well. On the other hand, giving money for programming or capital projects can create operating expenses.

"Any time you try to lock needs into a little box, it points up a problem," he said. "The greater the flexibility of funding, the better."

Another Philadelphia arts official, who asked not to be named, suggested that the time was ripe for the foundation to rethink basic funding policies.

"Because of all the focus on the capital money with the Avenue of the Arts, that's highlighted the need for operating money," the administrator said. "William Penn has always said they do not provide operating support. If there were a change (in policy), that would be the way to go. William Penn has said it doesn't give that kind of money because it's addictive. Well the answer to that is to find some innovative way to do it."

Brecher is taking all of this in and demurs when asked about the criticisms.

"Clearly, you can tell from the way I'm approaching the job that I believe our job is to listen and then our job is to make decisions and to understand," he said. "My sense is that it's not just foundations that have to listen more, but our whole society has to start listening to each other in a different way. . . . It strikes me that those officials and those agencies that are successful are those that are hearing and acting upon what people are really asking for. That's certainly true in corporations, and why shouldn't foundations fit into that category as well?"

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