Nine candidates vying to be Philadelphia’s 100th mayor painted a picture of their visions for the arts and cultural economy during City & State’s forum on Thursday, March 2.
The mayoral hopefuls shared their ideas for bolstering the city’s arts and culture institutions and weighed in on how the arts can improve initiatives ranging from school programming to violence prevention.
Eight Democrats – Jeff Brown, Allan Domb, Derek Green, Helen Gym, Rebecca Rhynhart, James DeLeon, Cherelle Parker, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez – and Republican David Oh were among the candidates at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
Jenny DeHuff, City & State PA editor-in-chief, and Ari Mittleman, host of the Pennsylvania Kitchen Table Politics Podcast, moderated the panel. State Rep. Amen Brown and Pastor Warren Bloom Sr. were not in attendance.
Philadelphia’s arts and culture economy generates $3.6 billion for the city annually, Domb, a real estate magnate and former at-large City Council member, said to kick off his opening remarks.
“Every dollar the city invests in arts, culture and creative economy, we get a return of $5 on our salaries and wages,” Domb said. “And it's not just the benefits that we're getting from the investment. It's all the other benefits of the hospitality (industry), restaurants, hotels and people who come to stay here.”
Every candidate on stage said they would make the director of the Office of Arts and Culture a permanent, cabinet-level position, with several candidates stating they would be a “cheerleader” for the city’s cultural institutions.
Domb notably said he would like to take on that deputy mayor role himself, stating that he’s willing to work “18 hours a day of doing whatever I can do to make the city the best it can be.”
Funding the arts
While most of the candidates agreed funding arts and culture programs was essential, they did differ on potential solutions for how to do it. Gym, another former City Council member, was among those who said they would reexamine the city’s tax structure and look at multiple new channels for funding.
“I would absolutely look at an expansion on the hotel tax that could go towards arts and in the cultural economy,” Gym said. “But I also think that the next mayor has to harness the power of philanthropic, private and corporate funding that has revitalized other cities.”
Brown, owner of the ShopRite and FreshGrocer chains, also said he would expand the hotel tax to include dedicated revenues for “arts and culture and fun.”
DeLeon, a former Municipal Court Judge, offered a unique policy idea, stating he would use the city’s towing tax as a dedicated funding source.
Rhynhart, the former city controller who has leaned on her knowledge of the city’s finances throughout her campaign, said she opposes creating a new tax for the arts but would ensure consistent funding through other means.
“The arts need to be prioritized so it’s not discussed every year, ‘Where do we get the money from?’” she said.
Mayoral candidates have participated in several forums and debates throughout the campaign season, with the Kimmel Center discussion focused on the city’s issues through the lens of its cultural economy. In more recent years, funding has become an ongoing issue. Mayor Jim Kenney attempted to cut arts funding dramatically amid the pandemic and the city’s budget shortfalls, prior to federal pandemic relief passing.
The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, which represents nearly 350 organizations in the city, estimated that at the end of 2021, Philadelphia’s arts and culture industry was missing roughly 8,400 jobs and down 26% in revenue. But with an infusion of federal pandemic relief funds, the city was able to help organizations rebound last year. The 2023 spending plan included $5.5 million for the city’s cultural fund, the highest level of funding the corporation that distributes funding to city arts organizations had ever received.
Former at-large Council member Oh noted that he fought for a dedicated funding stream while on Council, when he proposed utilizing $40 million in federal funding for a Creative Arts Recovery Fund.
“There has to be (funding) to draw in, for example, the fashion industry, the music industry … film and television,” Oh said.
Another former City Council member, Green, suggested that the city develop an independent agency for the arts modeled after the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities in the nation’s capital.
Arts, schools and the workforce
Many candidates suggested convening a multi-sector group to address arts from several perspectives and ensure no one community is left behind. Quiñones-Sánchez, another former Council member who represented the areas around Kenginston, offered a vision focused on what the city would look like in 2030.
“How great would it be if we leveraged the world-renowned institutions that we have downtown and used art in our infrastructure development to bring arts to community, to brand communities, to bring performances to neighborhoods, (and) bring folks into these institutions?” Quiñones-Sánchez said.
Former state representative and Council member Parker shared a story of her high school English teacher introducing her to literature, adding that “art and culture provide access to hope for young people who are born into poverty.”
“(The arts) should be embedded in workforce development,” Parker said. “I would use my intergovernmental experience because bullhorns don’t work in Harrisburg.”
Parker was not the only candidate stressing the importance of arts programming in schools. Many of the candidates suggested permanent programming in schools and developing career and technical education around the sector.
“We should develop young people skills and see where their talents are,” Brown said. “I also think after school programming is very important, especially in our rec centers.”
There were two “show of hands” questions, too, one asking who used SEPTA in the last week and the other asking who would seek to ban TikTok from city devices, if elected mayor. Candidates were divided on both questions, with Brown, DeLeon, Domb, Green, Parker and Quiñones-Sánchez vowing to ban the popular video-sharing app.
Nearing the end, candidates showed a moment of cohesion when they were asked how they would work with each other once the race was over. All of them pledged to be collaborators, stating that all the candidates have a common motive.
“Everyone here is deeply disturbed with the issues that are facing Philadelphia today. That's the reason why you see everyone on this stage running for mayor,” DeLeon said. “I don't have any qualms with anybody up on this stage because I have seen and know that each of them are a true leader and can do something to help this city thrive and grow.”
The primary election is May 16.