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Is the future of Philly’s arts and culture scene bleak or rosy?

A performer describes a tech-centric future. March 4, 2016 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
What kind of future do you envision for Philadelphia? Is it one that celebrates community arts, or one that focuses on attracting tourists and international business? Are the arts even a part of your vision? 

Last week, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (GPCA) presented “Rehearsing the Future,” an interactive event that hypothesized what Philly’s arts and culture scene could look like in 2035 based on national and international trends. Attendees representing numerous disciplines were asked to imagine what would happen to their organization, art form or career if each of the scenarios came true.

GPCA came up with the scenarios through an intensive research process facilitated by Garry Golden, a futurist consultant, according to GPCA President Maud Lyon. The result was four possible futures for the Philly arts sector: 

  1. American Bends Toward Justice — “A future where diversity, justice and harmony reign but many arts and culture organizations struggle to adapt to a world where funding and success are directly related to social impact.”
  2. Circling the Wagons — “The world in 2035 has a constrained economy and is extremely divisive. But many Philadelphians have seen positive changes in returning to what matters most: family, community and meaningful experiences.”
  3. The New Creative Marketplace — “From 2016-2035, technology evolves at a breakneck pace, disrupting business models. Virtual reality, predictive technology and other new innovations cause a paradigm shift in the production and distribution of the creative arts.”
  4. Philly Goes Global — “In 2025, Philadelphia is a titan of global business and a thriving cosmopolitan city known around the world. But many people feel the soul of the city has changed and lost its uniqueness.”

Actors performed as characters living in each of the futures. In the “Circling the Wagons” scenario, a man playing an African American leader of a neighborhood theatre company said, “Being a nonprofit is tough these days. But the upside is that the theater really belongs to the community. We don’t get too many people from other parts of Philadelphia, but we’re tight with the neighborhood.”

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In the “Philly Goes Global” scenario, a man playing the CEO of a major business services firm with international clients said, “Some people say that the character of Philadelphia has changed a lot, that we’ve lost what makes it ‘Philly.’ I’d say that the changes that are happening are positive for the region, and for the world.”

Several of the scenarios certainly ring familiar of the current state of things. Arts organizations are becoming increasingly justice-focused. At the same time, many smaller arts organizations struggle for funding. GPCA itself is hosting its second “TechniCulture” event at this year’s Philly Tech Week. And last year, Philly was named the U.S.’s first World Heritage City.

A performer describes a social justice-centric future.

A performer describes a social justice-centric future. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

For attendees, the attractiveness of each scenario depended on the type of org they represented. Diane Poff, institutional giving officer with the Curtis Institute of Music, thought the first scenario would benefit her organization the most.

“We’re already on the right track for that first scenario because we do a lot of community outreach now,” she said. “We teach our students that it’s really important — more than just performing these days — to actually go out in the community, especially because Philadelphia doesn’t have the arts in schools anymore.”

The Mural Arts Program, too, would benefit from a social impact-focused future, said Ellen Soloff, its director of tours and merchandise.

“It’s good to know that there seems to be an emerging trend that will continue for the longevity of someone like Mural Arts,” she said. However, she added, “any of the scenarios work for us in terms of community groups getting strengthened as well as Center City groups getting strengthened, because we as an organization work with all different sectors and all different neighborhoods and all different groups of arts and culture.”

Samantha Mera-Candedo of the Magic Gardens was less optimistic.

“A lot of these scenarios may kind of destroy the Magic Gardens,” she said. “It’s still a really, really young organization, and they rely a lot on the community and ticket sales and grants. From what I’m gathering, unless you’re a big museum in some of these scenarios that have a lot of impact with tourism, you’re going to struggle a lot, funding-wise.”

No one scenario seems best to Lyon — and that’s not really the point, anyway.

“I think it kind of depends on what you think is important and what is the biggest driver of your organization,” she said. “We all need to pay attention to, for instance, equity, technology, the tightening economy, the charitable dollar and popular taste. The answer is, the future of Philadelphia will have evidence of all of these.”

The exercises from the “Rehearsing the Future” presentation are available on GPCA’s website for orgs that would like to conduct them on their own.

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