Michael Dahl: Raising the Curtain on the Next Decade

Michael Dahl: Raising the Curtain on the Next Decade

If you want to see what arts and culture can do for a city, put on your walking shoes and take a stroll along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Start at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and head out past Swann Fountain toward the Free Library of Philadelphia, now formally affiliated with the Rosenbach Museum & Library, creating one of the nation's preeminent rare book collections. Along the way, you'll see the Franklin Institute, which will soon include the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion; the renovated courtyard and grounds at the Rodin Museum and the magnificent Philadelphia Museum of Art. You'll also pass a new jewel: the Barnes Foundation. The famed collection of post-Impressionist and modern art moved to the Parkway last year, earning bravos from art and architecture critics around the globe.

These nonprofit venues, along with a vibrant cultural community throughout the city, merited Philadelphia a spot on Lonely Planet's top 10 U.S. cities to visit in 2013. The travel guide declared that “Philadelphia is becoming known as an art capital.”

It is an important message because as we plan for the next decade, the city's art, cultural and historical treasures will be essential. Not only do they enrich our appreciation of the aesthetic world, they enhance Philadelphia's quality of life — attracting new residents and millions of visitors while increasing the city's economic vitality.

The importance of a vibrant cultural scene to the local economy cannot be overstated. The latest State of the City report from The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia research initiative noted that Philadelphia is becoming a “test case” for how cities develop in the 21st century. Quality of life is becoming a key element in determining a city's economic fortunes, some urban planners theorize, because young adults demand it. An appealing setting attracts talented people — and jobs.

While Philadelphia's challenges with its schools, crime and poverty continue, there are many positive developments, too. Center City is bright and alive. Hotels are opening, museum attendance is up and — for the first time in a half century — the city's population has increased. It grew by 58,897, nearly 4 percent, from 2006 to 2012. Much of that success can be attributed to the city's improving quality of life, nurtured in large part by cultural activities and the city's historical assets. The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance notes that arts and culture have a more than $1 billion economic impact on the region each year.

Yet even as the city's reputation for the arts grows, many cultural organizations are struggling, and some will probably not survive. To thrive, they must think anew about the future and create innovative programming that reaches new audiences and brings financial stability. Supporters of the arts — philanthropists, government officials or corporate leaders — can help foster these new approaches by encouraging strong business models that strengthen cultural institutions for the long term.

To encourage a thriving arts community, Pew has developed a strategy that no longer targets specific artistic disciplines but underwrites the most promising work across the cultural spectrum by institutions with artistic quality and leaders who have an ambitious and sustainable vision for the future. We will also help high-performing organizations with the risk capital they need to confront the changing economy, evolving audiences, and an increasingly competitive operating environment.

This kind of creative thinking by some in the cultural community is already paying off. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is establishing itself as an active and dynamic public space through exhibits such as “Dancing Around the Bride.” The show combined visual art with music and live dance events for what The New Yorker's critic called the “most thrilling exhibition I've seen in years.” Similarly, Opera Philadelphia's staging of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Silent Night” represented a successful effort to attract new audiences through contemporary productions.

Cultural and civic leaders' forward thinking helped spur the Academy of Natural Sciences' affiliation with Drexel University, the merger of the Rosenbach with the Free Library and the relocation of the Barnes, which now are all stronger institutions for the coming decade.

The makeover of the newly re-opened Benjamin Franklin Museum is the latest example of a public-private partnership to preserve one of Philadelphia's cultural and historical treasures. The museum now has a strategic vision and operating plan, and compelling new exhibits that will bring Franklin's legacy to life for a new generation of visitors. This could not have been done without support from the federal, state and local governments, the Lenfest Foundation, the William Penn Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Pew.

All of these projects share a theme: visionary leaders and supporters coming together to produce innovative new art and improved cultural venues that are finding growing audiences.

Now more than ever, creativity in the cultural community cannot be limited to the artists. It must enliven how the boards and leaders of these organizations think about the future. And it must inspire government, business, community and philanthropic leaders to form the partnerships that lead to success and benefit us all.

Michael Dahl is senior vice president of The Pew Charitable Trusts and oversees the Philadelphia program