Studio Incamminati was founded in October 2002 by Nelson Shanks, one of the world's most sought-after portrait artists: His subjects have included Princess Diana, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Shanks takes no salary to teach at Studio Incamminati.
The school had behind-the-scenes support at the port authority.
Two top DRPA officials said State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, an alternate commissioner, urged Gov. Rendell, who also is the DRPA's chairman, to sign off on the award.
Fumo, who has long been a power on the DRPA board, declined to answer questions about the award. He referred them to lawyer Richard A. Sprague, his longtime close friend and personal attorney.
"If you have questions on Studio Incamminati, I would suggest you call Richard Sprague, their lawyer," Fumo said after a DRPA meeting last week. "I'm not going to answer them."
Sprague did not return three calls over three days. Shanks said Sprague was not the school's attorney.
"We are 100 percent deserving" of the grant, Shanks said in a recent interview in the school's 5,000-square-foot space in the Wolf Building at 12th and Callowhill Streets. "Frankly, we could use another $12 million. I could do a lot with it that could really have a yield."
He said the goal of Incamminati was to train artists so they could make a living producing work at the "highest level imaginable."
"You can't do that with thousands" of people, he said.
School officials say they will use the grant to increase the number and diversity of students at the school, to bolster the curriculum, and for marketing, fund-raising and administrative support. They are adding evening hours with three teams of teachers, as well as a guest artist program.
The DRPA board voted to establish the Cultural Economic Development Grant Program in December 2000. Since then, it has voted to set aside more than $6 million in economic-development money for its projects. DRPA officials say all of that money has since been dispersed or allocated.
Unlike most of DRPA's other grants, awards given out by the grant program do not require approval by DRPA's full board.
Instead, it works like this: Organizations interested in funding have submitted applications to the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which is paid a $50,000 administrative fee to collect and vet the applications and disperse the awards. DRPA officials retain the last say over what groups are funded.
Pennsylvania DRPA Commissioner Robert W. Bogle said that, until recently, he had served on a committee of DRPA and GPCA officials who would approve the grants. But the committee has not met in months, Bogle said, and did not approve the Studio Incamminati grant.
As DRPA chairman, Rendell has final approval of the fund's grants. According to the board resolution, Chief Executive Officer John J. Matheussen must also sign off on contracts, but Matheussen said he plays no role in funding decisions.
Through a spokeswoman, Rendell said last week that he could not recall who pushed for the grant but thought it was a worthy cause.
In an earlier interview, the governor called the school "innovative."
"This was something that we thought that we could really help get off the ground and establish, as opposed to some grants that go to ongoing agencies," Rendell said.
The fund has made grants to fewer than half of its applicants. Most of the fund's 114 grants have ranged from $10,000 to $100,000. Only eight have been for $200,000 or more, and - except for Studio Incamminati's - have gone to other grant funds or large, established organizations such as the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Ballet.
Studio Incamminati's operating budget last year was about $150,000. The school received tax-exempt 501 (c)(3) status in August.
The school's size and newness trouble Bogle.
"I don't think it's an organization we should have supported, particularly at this level," said Bogle, president and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Tribune. "They have no track record at all - none. Their own budget certainly doesn't, in any way, suggest we should be supporting this organization for this amount."
In a letter sent in September to the authority, Peggy Amsterdam, GPCA president, said she was concerned about the size of the grant and the fact the new school's board had only three members, two of whom were Shanks and his wife, when the application was made.
She also said there was no evidence that the region needed another art school.
"What will happen if they are unable to attract this level of funding in future years? . . . They are open to only a small, select group of people . . . The award seems out of line," Amsterdam wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer.
Amsterdam declined to comment on the letter.
The fund's guidelines say recipients should demonstrate an economic impact by supporting tourism or raising the area's reputation, leveraging private-sector support, or creating jobs or infrastructure.
They also should show stable financial management and a "strong record of past cultural achievement."
The award was made in a round of grants, also approved by Rendell, that included money for the Independence Seaport Museum and Peter Nero and the Philly Pops. The Pops are the fund's biggest overall beneficiary, having received $425,000 in three separate grants since 2001.
Margot Knight, who has 25 years of grant-making experience and no connection to the Studio Incamminati grant, said the award seemed steep.
"That's a pretty big investment to make in an organization that's so young," said Knight, president and CEO of United Arts of Central Florida, which gives away $6 million a year.
The man who paints the powerful is unfazed by the criticism of the award.
Shanks said he did not know much about the port authority, which runs the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross and Commodore Barry Bridges and the PATCO High-Speed Line. But he is clearly not shy about tooting his school's horn.
"We'll change the face of art, if not culture. That's what we're about," he said. "I'm sorry there isn't enough money to go around; that is, maybe, the issue."
Shanks said he had talked up Studio Incamminati to Fumo, who over the years has helped provide millions in port authority dollars to nonprofit organizations.
Shanks said that the two men had met twice socially, and that the state senator attended the artist's current exhibition at the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill.
For that matter, Shanks said, he also chatted up former Michigan Gov. John Engler, whom he is painting now. And former President Bill Clinton, who is up next. The Dalai Lama might even get an earful after that.
But not Rendell. "He's too nervous. It's hard to pin him down" for a conversation, Shanks said.
And, he says, he has no plans to paint any port authority officials. "If they want to wait about five years," he says, "maybe."
Shanks added that Sprague is "a big believer in me and my work," but has no plans to paint him, either. "Although I'd like to, any time he'd like to step forward. He's great-looking."
Shanks said he now has about 22 commissions lined up - the equivalent of about three years of work. His fees start in the tens of thousands of dollars and rise, depending on factors such as the painting's complexity and any travel required.
"There is probably no one around who's much more expensive," the artist said of himself.
Philadelphia - cheaper and more accessible than New York - was a logical place to open Studio Incamminati, whose name was derived from that of a 16th-century Italian academy that sought to revive classically inspired realism, Shanks said. He began the school because of his dissatisfaction with other art institutions.
He believes that the practice of realism is not widely or properly taught, and that other art schools were turning out students who could not "make a living in their field."
In addition to the DRPA grant, the school has raised another $250,000 in private donations, he said. It now runs mostly on program fees, yet Shanks said tuition - $800 a month for full-time students - was lower than that at many other schools.
The school now has a five-member board: Along with Shanks and wife, Leona, the other members are Marc Mostovoy, founder of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Atlanta painter Anne Hall, and Rowan University sociology professor James R. Abbott.
Students range from high school students to senior citizens. School officials say models are paid $15 an hour so they stay loyal. The school has one salaried full-time interim executive director and 10 part-time staffers.
Shanks, who has taught for decades elsewhere, plans to solicit more grants for Studio Incamminati from funds such as the Pew Charitable Trusts. His goal is to emulate the Curtis Institute of Music - granting full-tuition scholarships to all students.
"I don't want some of the greatest talents driving taxis to pay off their tuition, when they should be here. We want to give to people, not take away," he said.
Shanks is now in talks with Italian officials who are considering opening a sister school in Italy.
About 200 students have come through the school since its opening in October 2002. At least a dozen have moved to Philadelphia.
One of them is Mark Heid, 30, who moved with his wife and two small children from Lewisburg, central Pennsylvania.
Heid said he had since seen his art improve and his portrait business take off. "Something that used to take me 100 hours is now taking 60, definitely as a result of this place," he said.
Heid said he felt lucky to work with a master. Of Shanks, he joked: "I'm hoping he'll throw me a bishop here and there."
Contact staff writer Elisa Ung at 856-779-3997 or email@example.com.
Staff Writer Mario F. Cattabiani contributed to this article.