Yo, Is Philly the Spokesmodel for Urban Culture?

This year seems to mark another breakout era for Philly theater. The last one I can recall happened somewhere around the middle of the Ed Rendell-mayored 1990s, with a burst of building along Broad Street, which was just beginning to cozy up to its new moniker, "The Avenue of the Arts." Now there's a second wave of theaters popping up, failing economy be damned. The newly opened Suzanne Roberts Theater will host Bill Irwin's The Happiness Lecture on Wed. night (click for a New York Times feature on the show; I'll post my review on Friday), the Kimmel Center is already looking to expand, the Live Arts Fringe festival turns nearly every crumbling edifice in the city into a venue for a couple of weeks, leaving a magical trail of condos wherever it lands, and there are even murmurings of new houses opening in a far-flung transitioning neighborhood called Fishtown

In addition, two of the four theaters nominated by the American Theatre Critics' Association for this year's regional Tony award were Philly houses (the Arden and Philadelphia Theatre Company). My Inquirer colleague Howard Shapiro just wrote a great feature on the phenomenon that made the front page--and how glorious it is to see theater qualifying as news.

Mind you, I'm not even getting into the Philadelphia Museum of Art's recent and upcoming expansions, the Please Touch Museum's new home, or The Roots and Santogold, to name a couple of locally-bred musical spitfires burning up ITunes. Happy days are here again!

So, to what do we owe this cultural cornucopia? I posit it's all a result of the excellent public-private partnerships Philly enjoys, a perfect storm of arts-loving foundations, a network of cultural alliances willing to take the lead in fostering new initiatives instead of simply serving as figureheads, real-estate prices that allow artists to live and raise their children in a humane manner, and a new art-friendly mayor, Michael Nutter, who has lifted hopes that the city will restore its John Street-shuttered Office of Arts and Culture--a campaign promise he has yet to fulfill. 

(Then-Mayor Street's priorities: setting up camp during a workday to be one of the first in line to receive an IPhone.) 

This month, The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance announced an $11.5 million effort to double audience participation in the area over the next four years, and judging by last year's report on the economic benefits of our robust arts scene, I'm guessing that despite our other civic woes, Philly is on the right track to become a model for the nation's cities. That's right, our fat, ugly asses are looking pretty good right about now. 

In the middle of a national recession, Philly's arts are thriving and growing, which just goes to show their importance for the success of a city, and how crucial it is that government--local, state and federal--supports this growth and acknowledges the wide-ranging, quantifiable benefits the arts bestow directly upon its citizens.

May 20, 2008 8:36 AM | | Comments (3)


It's a great time to be in the arts in Philly! And I think the flourishing extends beyond "the wealthy and their pastimes" though of course they're an important part of the arts. I don't know about 9th and Indiana, but the arts garage at Broad and Ridge is coming into its own, and there's a budding Arts organization called Arts West on 52nd Street (also home to the Bushfire Theatre which is ramping up its operations). And a brief romp through YouTube will convince you just how robust, diverse and interesting is the hip hop scene in Philly right now. The Ave. of the Arts is still a central part of the scene, but events there are more accessible than they ever have been before. First Person Arts--where I work (full disclosure)--hosts a series of arts salons on the 2nd Wed. of every month at the Gershman Y that cost just 5 bucks and incorporate all kinds of memoir and documentary work. On June 11th, for example, we'll screen a portion of Ron Kanter's recent doc New Cops about a class at the Philly Police Academy and have a discussion with some of the officers featured. We'll also have a reading by Lorene Carey (of Art Sanctuary) from her memoir and a presentation by a Mural Artist on one of his recent projects. (more info as http://www.firstpersonarts.org ) My point, of course, is that the arts--even on the Ave. of the Arts--are more accessible and diverse than they have been in Philadelphia in the past, and that's not merely due to the whims of the wealthy elite.


Oh WC, ye of little faith, stay tuned to the Inquirer as I'll have an article in there after Memorial Day about how the scene has moved north into Fishtown, and the positive effect at least one theater is having on the community.

And remember, a healthy arts scene means healthy arts education, since most theaters have an educational wing (great for grants) and thus bring their craft to the schools, which, as you might have noticed, aren't otherwise getting much arts (remember those 74% of 8th graders without theater?)

Of course, the boom is funded by the wealthy, but the benefits, which also include free public events, busier streets, better property values, and a higher quality of life, are widespread.

Not wishing to be a cynic but.....

Could the 'booming Philly arts scene' be class related? Recessions rarely affect the wealthy and their pastimes.....

Maybe the magnanimous Bohemians could see their way to offering some free seats around 9th and Indiana.....

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