ART/CITY: Harris Steinberg

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium “ART/CITY” on March 16, 2012. Participants have been invited to respond to the prompt “in relation to the arts and civic life, the question I am wrestling with right now is…” in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Harris Steinberg, Executive Director, PennPraxis, University of Pennsylvania.
In relation to the arts and civic life, the question I am wrestling with right now is how to balance support for the organic growth of a grassroots art culture and arts organizations with traditional institutional art venues, offerings, management and support.We are currently conducting a study for the William Penn Foundation that investigates the impact that a contemporary performing arts festival has had on neighborhood revitalization in Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia Live Arts and Fringe Festival have been successful over the past 15 years in helping to create an identity for Philadelphia as a city that supports leading-edge performing arts.  What began as a scrappy, 16-day festival that highlighted local talent and performed in unique, underutilized post-industrial spaces in edgy neighborhoods has grown to become more established – using establishment performance venues along Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts as it showcases world-class artists.  Can the festival evolve and maintain both its edge and its central place in Philadelphia’s creative economy?Contrast this with Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – a $250,000,000 arts palace on the Avenue of the Arts that opened in 2001 and houses five resident companies and four performance venues – including serving as the concert hall for the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra.  Yet, the Kimmel has struggled since it opened with operating costs, the impact of union labor and the difficulty in living up to the expectation that it would become an important public space.  In 2008, we led a public process and a design studio at Penn to help the Kimmel learn to become more integrated into the public life of Philadelphia –a process that has been difficult for the organization to implement as it runs counter to the established notion of arts and civic life. These two arts organizations exemplify the tension between grassroots artistic energy, organizational evolution and establishment culture.  Contemporary cities tend to embrace the creation of large-scale arts facilities as an important economic development tool – think Bilbao. They do so at their peril if they neglect the vibrant independent arts scene.  Balancing support for an inculcation of both the traditional and the avant-garde is critical to ensuring that new artistic expressions will bubble up and continue to attract public interest and funding, while contributing to the perception that the city is a vibrant and vital place of ideas, energy and activity.  Operationalizing a policy to support these outcomes is a question that I am currently wrestling with.