University City: Artists Band Together to Overcome Funding Shortfalls

Witmer has volunteered at University City Arts League, which is one of the few ways children can have exposure to art. Art classes are hard to find in many Philadelphia Public Schools.]

The arts are a frequent target for budget cuts from the state, but local artists have worked together to combat this financial barrier. Each year, less and less money is allotted for arts funding. This has resulted in fewer opportunities for artists in many communities in Philadelphia.

“A couple of years ago I applied for a Pennsylvania Council of the Arts individual artist fellowship, and basically I got this letter back that year that boiled down to ‘Thanks for applying. Turns out we’re cutting it, so good luck with that.’ That was the gist of the letter and it felt like a slap in the face,” local artist and co-owner of the Greenline Café Douglas Witmer said.

Local artist Douglas Witmer has been familiar in dealing with state funding cuts for the arts.

Lack of funding has also made art classes in public schools almost non-existent. The Philadelphia School District can no longer afford to fund these classes, and as a result children are rarely taught art in school. The only way youth can have an exposure to the arts now is through after-school programs such as the University City Arts League. The Arts League is unique to University City in that it provides after-school art classes to children and adults, which have become a necessity due to funding cuts.

Witmer teaches art classes at the University City Arts League and tries to do his best to foster an appreciation for the arts in children who have little other access to it. “The arts in America are chronically underfunded, maybe you could even say terminally underfunded. You know it just feels like that money every number of years gets more and more pinched,” Wimer said.

Local artist Michael Konrad has had to stretch a dollar as much as he can in order to fund his art projects.

Budget cuts at the state level for arts funding have forced local artists to rethink how best to maintain their community. Many artists have worked on collaborating with each other to ease the financial burden.

In addition to collaboration, local artists have focused on alternate ways to keeps the arts thriving in University City even without state funding. Knowing how to stretch a dollar is key. Artists try to get as much use as they can from the funds they are given, knowing not to splurge on expensive materials or other costs. If there is a cheaper alternative, they take it. This is adding to the already present do-it- yourself attitude in University City.

“There is a mindset of ‘they aren’t going to do it for us, so we better do it ourselves’ but I think that’s a great attitude that people have around here. [Artists] aren’t waiting around for someone else to do something cool,” Locust Moon Comic Book Shop owner Joshua O’Neill said. “There is a sense that you can build something from the ground up.”

However, several artists said they remain concerned by the budget cuts. They suggest that a complete re-invigoration of the arts system must occur to maintain the community’s interest. “I worry about funding cuts, at a governmental level. They keep sending a message over and over again that the arts aren’t valued,” Witmer said. “The trickle down of that could be a person, a really young person or aspiring artist who would maybe want to keep pursing the arts would somehow get that message internalized that it is not very valued in their society and gravitate to something else.”

Witmer has volunteered at University City Arts League, which is one of the few ways children can have exposure to art.

As the government continues to cut funding for arts programs, artists more frequently look to private sources for funding. Grants and private donations contribute to local arts funding in University City, but the neighborhood also benefits from having institutions like the University of Pennsylvania. Penn has taken an active mission to fund many art programs in the neighborhood and provides most of the funding for the Rotunda and the 40th Street Artist in Residence programs. Penn also owns a large amount of land in the area and is turning some of its unused properties into studio spaces for artists.

Gina Renzi, director of the 40th Street Artist in Residence program and the Rotunda, said she understands that it is not always easy for lawmakers to pick which arts programs should receive funding, since there are so many of them.

“It’s a challenge to figure out funding for the arts and the artists because it’s difficult to figure out what they need or what they are trying to do,” Renzi said, “So many artists wear so many different hats, it is kind of tough for them to decide what direction to go in and then just get money for that. Artists are highly creative people and they don’t want to be boxed in.”

Though funding cuts may be discouraging, artists in University City continue to maintain the local arts community. Through their combined efforts and help from the University of Pennsylvania, artists in University City have managed to keep the arts thriving.

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