Suite on Arts and Heritage (Summer 2006 Trust Magazine article)

  • September 01, 2006
  • By Denise Portner

The new center housing the Trusts' Artistic Initiatives expands possibilities for creativity and organizational effectiveness.

In the arts, more is not necessarily better—but more has only served to improve the Trusts' Artistic Initiatives.

Begun with a single entity, a music project in 1989, the program has grown to include other discipline-focused projects in dance, history, theater and the visual arts as well as a fellowship program in diverse art fields. The initiatives support dozens of performances, exhibitions and other public programs, and encourage high levels of artistic and management capacity through seminars, publications and other activities.

Several external evaluations have concluded that the initiatives have been individually successful and that collectively they have helped reinvigorate the Philadelphia arts scene. Artists, arts organizations, the various disciplines, local audiences—all have benefited, as has the city.

To help take the region's cultural community to even greater heights, the Trusts combined the operations of the Artistic Initiatives into a single, comprehensive Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, which opened in Center City last fall.

Administered by the University of the Arts, the center pools the individual strengths of the initiatives and bridges the barriers between their respective disciplines. It also includes a project that helps strengthen the management and operations of cultural organizations in the region. (See "The Constellation at the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage" below.)

As Marian Godfrey, managing director of Culture and Civic Initiatives at the Trusts, notes, the center will enjoy modest administrative efficiencies, but “these projects have already been run so incredibly leanly that this is not about cost-cutting. The center will certainly take advantage of economies of scale. More importantly, it's about freeing up the intellectual capital of the people who work in these initiatives, as well as the artists and organizations they fund.

“It's about creating an environment where there's more human capacity to explore the kinds of high-quality, adventurous projects that the initiatives have always stimulated—and, in addition, to inspire new kinds of interdisciplinary collaboration.” Trust asked Godfrey to elaborate.

Godfrey: We were looking to refresh our investment in the local arts and culture community with new approaches. We've seen that some of the most important new work is in crossing boundaries and challenging established forms and expectations. We therefore wanted to create an administrative center whose culture is designed to promote partnering and sharing ideas.

Trust: Are you referring to interdisciplinary collaborations?

Godfrey: Yes, and there's another realm, too, and that is the flowering of artists and organizations that, in their own work, are more cross-cutting in the forms they use.

Some examples are Pig Iron Theater, Headlong Dance Theatre, New Paradise Laboratories and the individual artist Thaddeus Phillips, all supported by the Trusts' Artistic Initiatives. Their productions can best be described as performance incorporating theater, dance, music, sound and visual expression— all brought together by artists using tools from various disciplines to make one piece of work.

This is different from one organization collaborating with another. The piece itself is increasingly likely to cross boundaries. It can't be easily defined as either theater or dance or visual arts.

Trust: Is this a relatively recent direction for artists?

Godfrey: More and more of this work is emerging, and we want to make it easier to fund it through our programs. A project should not have to be bound by traditional definitions of music or dance to be eligible for support.

We have already been cultivating these interdisciplinary categories through the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, but we want to find even more ways of fostering work that doesn't fit neatly into conventional descriptions of what art is.

Trust: How might this apply to specific Artistic Initiatives?

Godfrey: Well, the Heritage Philadelphia Program is in the midst of a really interesting conversation involving several directors about how interpretation of history as well as historic sites and buildings could be enlivened by music, dance, theater or visual art—how our collective history could be more compelling if multiple formats were used to tell it.

Trust: At the sites?

Godfrey: At the sites or in the streets. We've talked a lot recently about how to activate the city as a museum and at the same time how to bring more creative ferment into these individual sites. That's something we're just beginning to explore.

Dance Advance has grown in similar ways. With its second grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the company is developing projects in which Polish and Romanian choreographers work with the Philadelphia dancers. They perform in all three countries.

Collaborations like these are so stimulating to the artists involved. The audiences love them, too—who doesn't enjoy seeing variations on a theme they think they know so well? The arts are precisely about seeing and interpreting life in new ways. We need to be constantly feeding that spirit by funding the artist's vision in the conceptual stage.

Trust: Artistic life isn't always gregarious.

Godfrey: It can be a solitary endeavor, and the steps to success are not defined or assured as they are in some professions. Because of that, the more infrastructure we can offer, the more helpful we can be.

Trust: The initiative directors benefit as well, no doubt.

Godfrey: Well, being housed in one place definitely makes it easier for them to share information about what they're up to. In the corridors and at lunch—if they want to try to figure out more ways to work together, it's just easier to set up the conversation.

The administrators get to literally see the work that one another is doing because they can go into the panel room and watch the slides or the work samples or whatever. They will be stimulated by one another's ideas on a daily basis, and actually that's already happening.

They're talking with one another in a different way than they ever did when they had to either pick up the phone or walk across town. That's just human nature, I think. And it's working.

Trust: What have been the noticeable benefits so far?

Godfrey: Paula Marincola, the director of the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, and Matt Levy, the director of the Philadelphia Music Project, are working together to develop guidelines for a new program that would provide technical assistance and professional development for interdisciplinary projects or people who want to work on those kinds of projects. So we're implementing a kind of framework for people to be able to explore planning projects.

Trust: We notice that the center is not merely about artists.

Godfrey: It was natural to include the Philadelphia Cultural Management Initiative there. Although clearly it's not an artistic effort, it allows for more holistic thinking about providing professional growth to artists and arts organizations.

Up until now, our work with this initiative has been partly about management technical assistance, and our work with the artistic initiatives has been partly about artistic technical assistance. In reality—just as with artistic disciplines—there's not such a clear distinction between the two, particularly for a small company where everybody does everything and every administrative decision has a direct impact on the art and vice versa.

And so to be able to think more comprehensively about technical assistance and professional development and not have to make a distinction of “Is this art?” or “Is this management?”— this, I think, is going to be very helpful to the organizations and to our own thinking about how we continue to support our programs.

Trust: Again, conventional distinctions fall by the wayside.

Godfrey: Yes. Here's an example. Martin Cohen, the cultural management initiative's director, is working on a legacy project with about 20 longtime leaders of local cultural organizations, artists as well as managers. Discussions focus on the way they have been thinking about transitioning either within their organizations or out of them into retirement and what they want to leave behind, if they are thinking of moving on.

Martin has addressed this in a way that does not separate management issues from artistic concerns. They all involve the legacy of these people who are leading these organizations, so that the discussion takes on both the artistic and management questions of what it takes to lead an organization, and then also what it takes to make sure the organization is in good hands if you decide to leave.

Here is another example. There is a conversation going on in the community now on how individual artists, or artists who are leaders of small, artist-founded organizations, learn to be better managers of their own professional lives, meaning not only their careers as individual artists but also their organizations. Melissa Franklin, who directs both the center and the fellowships program, has been involved with this.

Previously, this kind of conversation always happened from the point of view of the manager. Now the artists are picking up on it, and I think that's going to be a very fruitful area of development that these projects can help with.

Collaboration, discussion of areas of concern for artists and organizations— these are very hard even with everything going for it. We want to reduce the barriers to make it more likely that these types of efforts will be feasible.

The Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage is located at 1608 Walnut Street, 18th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19103. Its phone number is 267.350.4900, and its Web site is 

The Constellation at the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage

  • Dance Advance (begun in 1993), directed by Bill Bissell, promotes projects in dance in the five-county region of Pennsylvania surrounding, and including, the city of Philadelphia. 
  • The Heritage Philadelphia Program (1999), led by interim director Paula Marincola, supports history programs and the historic preservation of buildings in the Philadelphia region by encouraging and enhancing humanities-based programming grounded in contemporary scholarship. 
  • The Pew Fellowships in the Arts (1991), directed by Melissa Franklin, awards grants of $50,000 to artists working in a wide variety of performing, visual and literary disciplines so that they may have the opportunity to dedicate themselves to creative pursuits exclusively. 
  • The Philadelphia Cultural Management Initiative (2002), directed by Martin Cohen, offers access to knowledge and resources to strengthen the management and operations of cultural organizations in the five-county Philadelphia metropolitan area. 
  • The Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative (1997), directed by Paula Marincola, stimulates artistic development in the regional visual-arts community by supporting public visual-arts exhibitions and accompanying publications of high artistic caliber and cultural significance as they are relevant to the missions of the participating organizations. 
  • The Philadelphia Music Project (1989), directed by Matt Levy, fosters artistic excellence and innovation in the region's nonprofit music community by supporting adventurous programming that contributes to the advancement of participating organizations and by maintaining a comprehensive professional development program. 
  • The Philadelphia Theatre Initiative (1996), directed by Fran Kumin, provides theater professionals with the resources to create or present projects of the highest standards, expand the programming range and develop a sense of community through the exchange of ideas, information and resources.

Denise Portner is a vice president of Tierney Communications in Philadelphia.