Culture (from Pew Prospectus 2011)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Marian A. Godfrey and Gregory T. Rowe

03/31/2011 -

Art isn’t easy—
Even when you’re hot.
Advancing art is easy.
Financing it is not!
A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head.
If no one gets to see it, it’s as good as dead.
It has to come to life!
           —Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George

With support from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre brought Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George vividly to life. The lyrics from one of that show’s signature songs, “Putting it Together,” pungently summarize the difficulty of being an artist. The play’s protagonist describes the often challenging and always time-consuming process of raising money to make art, the scorching criticism from various quarters that must be endured and the ever-present self-doubt summed up in the question, “Will anyone like it?” The production was one of 97 projects supported in the past year by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage’s six artistic initiatives, which each use a rigorous review process involving professionals in all disciplines to make funding decisions.

Art is not always easy for audiences either. For the 1937 Paris Exposition, Pablo Picasso was commissioned to produce a mural for the pavilion of his native country, Spain. The exposition’s theme was a celebration of modern technology, but Spain was in the midst of a bloody civil war that included the terror bombing that spring of the small Spanish town of Guernica.  With encouragement from Spain’s embattled elected government, Picasso painted Guernica, which graphically depicts the horror that modern technology can wreak.  While critics generally were baffled by and dismissive of this disturbing piece of art, it is now viewed as one of Picasso’s most important works, with people lining up to see it every day at Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum. 

Many years earlier, a Philadelphia artist, Thomas Eakins, in his painting The Gross Clinic, also challenged audiences with his graphic portrayal of an operating room scene at Jefferson Medical College. Much of the public was scandalized by Eakins’ work, and it was not accepted for exhibition at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876. Today, Eakins’ painting is considered a masterpiece—an icon of Philadelphia’s progressive artistic and scientific history—and Pew joined with other local civic leaders and funders several years ago to avert a sale and thus ensure it will continue to be prominently displayed in Eakins’ hometown.

The best art, even when the topics are far less grim, comes through rigor and hard work on the part of artists and those who support their efforts. Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program negotiated for months with building owners, city agencies and transit officials while a team of artists logged long, intensive hours to create a smile-evoking series of 50 murals along an elevated train line through the row house neighborhoods of West Philadelphia. Collectively titled Love Letter, the murals, designed by former graffiti artist Stephen Powers, offer clever and cryptic love notes to 150,000 riders a day. Clay artist William Daley, whose works are included in such collections as those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Museum of Art of the Smithsonian Institution, has been a leading figure in the field of ceramics for nearly 60 years.  At age 85, he is creating some of the strongest work of his career, including large-scale stoneware vessels called “Vesicas,” for which he was awarded a 2010 Pew Fellowship in the Arts.  This recent body of work exemplifies the richness that can come from an artist’s labor and steadfast devotion to his or her creative vision.

More broadly, the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage provides support for exemplary work in art, music, dance, theater and historic interpretation, with a strong emphasis on the potential impact on audiences.  The Philadelphia Cultural Leadership Program, a companion initiative, provides flexible operating support to the best-managed and most effective arts organizations in the region.  On the national level Pew’s Cultural Data Project, which is currently operating in eight states, provides thousands of arts institutions a unique online tool to measure their financial and operational successes and challenges. That growing data base is also painting the most accurate picture to date of arts institutions in America, from their collective economic impact to, in many cases, their financial fragility.

We live in an age when the public has an ever-growing proliferation of choices for how to spend leisure time—much of it accessible through electronic means that can be employed at any hour in the comfort of one’s home.  Cultural organizations need to compete in that environment, to entice people to make what is often a harder, but often more rewarding, choice about how to spend a Sunday afternoon or a weekday evening.

That challenge will only increase in the years ahead.  But because cultural experiences can be so rewarding, we believe that the arts will always be a part of the better life that Americans seek.

Marian A. Godfrey
Senior Director, Culture Initiatives

Gregory T. Rowe
Director, Culture Initiatives
Deputy Director, Philadelphia Program

Read more about Pew's work in Pew Prospectus 2011 (PDF).

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