Regional Arts Funding Now is the time

Posted: February 13, 2005

With their City Hall in the throes of fiscal crisis, Pittsburgh arts and culture patrons nonetheless enjoyed a rare treat over the first 10 days in October: free admission to many museums, musical and dance performances, and family activities.

Here in Philadelphia, the Kimmel Center and other arts venues and museums may have been hopping - but it was mostly pay-as-you-go.

Was Pittsburgh spending its last few bucks on feel-good freebies? Hardly.

The city - actually, Allegheny County as a whole - was celebrating the 10th anniversary of its Allegheny Regional Asset District. The program distributes sales tax proceeds to parks, libraries, sports and civic venues, and cultural and arts groups.

In the last decade, Pittsburgh's regional attractions have received $670 million in operating and capital grants. From huge arenas to the all-volunteer Edgewood Symphony Orchestra (total annual grant: $3,200), the RAD funding has been a lifeline.

Philadelphia city, business and civic and arts leaders have long talked of creating the same sort of stable funding base for cultural attractions. In fact, they've talked for longer than Pittsburgh's Regional Asset District has been up and running. A plan that would have joined the four suburban counties and the city in a fund similar to RAD died in the mid-'90s.

So it's time to stop talking and to take action, right? If only it were that easy in a region this geographically and politically divided. But an important first step was Mayor Street's recent declaration that he's a fan of creating a $50 million to $100 million kitty to support cultural groups.

Street has begun convening discussions with civic leaders - the type of vital brainstorming on the issue that hasn't happened in years.

The timing is right. On one hand, strained government budgets continue to hamstring arts funding. Street's latest budget calls for reducing support to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other groups, and for staff cuts at the Free Library.

Yet, at the same time, the region's cultural garden has bloomed through large and successful investment - with more planned. When a regional cultural fund was proposed more than a decade ago, there was no Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts or National Constitution Center, no Barnes or Calder museum on the horizon for the Parkway, no downtown residential-conversion boom.

Now that these investments in bricks, mortar and programming have been made, the imperative is to sustain them. As Peggy Amsterdam, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, notes: "We have more to support. We have more to lose. The stakes are higher."

Fortunately, there's never been more evidence or a better understanding of the economic clout of cultural attractions. They rank high among the factors that hone the city's competitive edge. Dollars and resources devoted to support these attractions will protect a wise investment.

Now the task is to devise the best means for raising funds - both public and private, regional and statewide - to create a predictable source of funding for the region's cultural gems.

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