Despite COVID-19, Philadelphia’s Arts Community Continues to Adapt, Inspire, and Move Toward Recovery

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Despite COVID-19, Philadelphia’s Arts Community Continues to Adapt, Inspire, and Move Toward Recovery

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented extraordinary challenges for the Philadelphia region’s cultural sector over the past 10 months. The resilience that the community, its leaders, and individual practitioners have shown—and continue to show—in the face of enormous stress has been remarkable. From quickly moving in-person exhibitions and events to virtual formats to adapting facilities to operate according to safety guidelines, the sector’s collective creativity and flexibility in finding new ways to engage broad and diverse audiences have been inspirational.

In May, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage took steps to help organizations and artists offset revenue losses by providing additional operating support to current grantees and fellows. Then, in October, the Center announced 41 new grants to support 29 projects, all adapted for a variety of pandemic-related scenarios, as well as 12 artist fellowships.

During that process, we began to look to the future and consider how the Center could help recent grantees move toward recovery. After initial conversations with numerous arts and culture leaders, Pew co-commissioned a study, in collaboration with the William Penn Foundation and funders in other cities, to survey and analyze some of the pandemic’s most salient impacts on the arts sector. The results would inform the Center’s grantmaking approach for 2021.

The analysis, completed in November, showed that Philadelphia’s arts and history organizations were able to maintain and, in some cases, expand engagement with their audiences through new online programming. Many even ended 2020 with balanced budgets, despite substantial revenue losses from having to close physical facilities. But these achievements generally came at a price, including program cutbacks, staff furloughs and layoffs, or other cost-saving measures.

The study pointed to ways forward, emphasizing the importance of organizational adaptability. Through this research, as well as ongoing discussions with the Center’s grantees about their responses to the challenges of the moment, it became clear that organizations have the best chance of recovery if they continue to reimagine and evolve their business models, programming, audience engagement, facility accessibility, and health and safety measures. But doing this requires resources that can be difficult to come by, even in less challenging times.

Therefore, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage will pivot in 2021 from funding individual performances, exhibitions, and events to investing in organizational recovery and sustainability. Project grantees from the past five years—a total of 51 institutions—that meet the criteria outlined in the grant guidelines are eligible.

Many of these groups are already thinking of ways to expand digital programming, upgrade technologies, reconfigure indoor and outdoor facilities to ensure a safe and more accessible return to in-person experiences, and strengthen commitments to diversity and inclusion. Although these efforts will take time to come to fruition, we are encouraged by the discussions already taking place.

In addition to helping organizations, the Center will maintain its steadfast support for individual artists through the Pew Fellows in the Arts program, which awards 12 unrestricted fellowships each year. Along with their grants, fellows are offered counseling and workshops, which in the new year will focus on helping them navigate the changing landscape of artistic practice as a result of the pandemic.

The arts are essential to creating a vibrant civic life in the Philadelphia region and are integral to the local economy. We remain heartened by the inventiveness and perseverance that local institutions and artists have shown in the face of great uncertainty. While we will continue to evaluate our approach, we are energized and gratified to support efforts by recent grantees to emerge more durable and sustainable in the months and years ahead—and to help the sector play a robust role in restoring the region’s overall vitality.

Frazierita Klasen is a senior vice president at The Pew Charitable Trusts, leading the organization’s work in Philadelphia, and Paula Marincola is the executive director of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

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