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.