Philadelphia Cultural Fund: A Call To Action

Swim Pony. A happy grantee of:pcf_logo02_03

One of the long frustrations I have had with funding in the arts is emphasis on product. There are a lot of artists that bemoan this. On the ground level it seems clear how we’d run the funding world – we’d directly fund artists/companies that make art and not simply the art itself.

Some might think this is a selfish want. Some might think that by focusing on product, you keep the emphasis on the quality of the work. Some might think that by having to approve the outcome, by outlining and justifying budgets before you make anything, it keeps the arts lean and free of waste forcing “unnecessary” expenditures to get cut.

In my view, this is a way to staunch the innovation that many funders say they want to inspire.  In my view, this is a well-intentioned but ultimately destructive trend.  In my view, if you want to make the best art at the end of a process, the very last thing you want to do is only fund the outcome.

Because, in my view, to create real and meaningful innovation you have to actually ask questions that don’t yet have answers. I’ve talked about this a bit before, but the point is, to create real innovation you have to have room to fail. To truly invent, you’ll need a way to make something that doesn’t yet exist anywhere in the world, and you’ll have to figure it out as you go. The opportunity to be surprised by outcome is the only path to real learning.

The biggest craziest ideas are the ones that lead to the biggest chance. Without failure, in a situation where pre-defined success is the only way to resource, you will stifle the biggest, craziest ideas. If you set up a system that prizes result (result that is envisioned before anything begins) you are only rewarding knowable success.  If you have to succeed, you are disincentivized to do things you can’t succeed at. The things you know best you can succeed at are things you’ve already done.  They’re also the easiest to describe, because they’ve already happened before.

What’s the hardest thing in the world to write a grant about? Something I literally can’t imagine yet.

What’s the most exciting creative project for me to tackle? Something I literally can’t imagine yet.

This is why I make the case for real research and development – laboratories for testing and trying things that are likely to fail. Google knows this. Apple knows this. The companies we hold up as the most creative are those that do the most R & D. They try and fail and try and fail better. And they put their money into that over the long haul, without an expected reward every time. They know that to create revolutionary and unimaginable things, you need to create space for things that haven’t been imagined yet to develop. Many things we can’t imagine won’t become anything, but some will. And those will be the things that are revolutionary. That requires room. That requires un-restricting some funding.

I think this is also a massive difference in the way that the grant world funds science and the arts.  In a science lab, you ask a question, you make your best guess about what will happen, you carry out an experiment and then you use the results to interpret the answer. But if a scientist says based on past evidence they can predict with certainly exactly how the thing will turn out, you know what will happen? THEY WON’T GET THE MONEY. Why? Because if you already know what the result of a given process is, why bother carrying it out? It’s already a known quantity. Being able to know ahead of time means we’re not actually resulting in any new information.

In the case of a science grant, you’re funding questions and the people who ask them. The more mysterious the outcome, the more important it is to continue to delve into.  If you get a wildly different answer than predicted, that’s a sign of more work needing to be done, not a failure on the person who carried out the experiment.  In the arts this is also true in practice. Anecdotally, artists know that the best parts of our work are the things we could never have known to write into a project grant. But we have to pretend like that’s not true when we write a project proposal. Because there aren’t funders who want to hear you say, “The things that will be the best about this I cannot even conceive.”

The only time this is NOT the case are the precious few grantors who offer general operating support. There are lots of amazing things one can say about general operating support. For one thing it allows me the time to write those project specific grants. It fills the gaps that spring up for the multitude of things that a creator has to buy and do in the spaces between rehearsals.

But I think the greatest thing it does is provide artists with capital that can promote that unrestricted exploration. It allows us space to follow those inexplicable impulses that lead to the greatest and wildest discoveries. The most important step in a radical new idea is the first one, the one that is the hardest to make the leap to, not the final one, when the chain of inevitability is at its strongest. And that first step is the one that you’ll never be able to write a project grant for. It’s one for which you have to have money on hand to just go and try something crazy and see if it’s worth pursuing further.

I would bet that if every funder trusted artists to put the money where they believed it would best be used, we’d all have better work. And with that in mind I’m asking you all, right now, for 15 minutes of your time to make the arts in your city better.

Whether or not you know it, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund is one of the most amazing grantors in the region. They are one of the few places locally still offering unrestricted general operating support. No advanced defining where you need the money to be used. No stipulations as long as it’s used legally and legitimately. They look at the strength of your organization and track record of creation and trust that you know where best to allocate the limited dollars they have to offer you. They give general operating support to artistic companies of every kind in the city of Philadelphia. And they are the ONLY organization that offers it to artists at an early developmental level.

If you have ever seen a Swim Pony show and liked it, you are benefiting from the  experiment-driven development I’ve been able to include in my process. This is a creative freedom I’ve been given because of PCF’s general operations style funding.

What you also need to know that as a city government funded organization, you personally can affect how much money PCF will have next year.  Over the past few years their funding has been drastically cut. If you want great art – through your role as a maker or a viewer – then you MUST write a letter to the Mayor and/or your council person to let them know that you are part of their constituency and that you believe deeply in the necessity of what PCF does.  Show them where you want your tax dollars to go. Show them that you believe in the good of the arts to drive the economy in our city.

And in the bargain, you’ll be adding money to one of the few funders that offers money in a way that best fuels art making.

Below I’ve attached a sample letter for a board or volunteer for an organization. If you are a supporter, audience member or past co-creator with Swim Pony (or ANY funded artist of PCF) copy it, add your name and some of your own personal details and mail that sucker to Mayor Nutter and whichever Honorable council person belongs to you. Then send it to 5 friends and make them do it.  15 minutes. That’s how long it took me start to finish.  You have 15 minutes to make everything better for artists in our city.

How many letters would it take to make them take notice? Swim Pony has over 300 fans on Facebook. I bet that would be a good start.

Do it.




January 31, 2013

The Honorable (Councilperson’s name)

Philadelphia City Council

City Hall, Room XXX

Philadelphia, PA  19107

Dear (Councilman or Councilwoman):

I serve on the board of/I volunteer for/I am an audience member of (pick one)   the (name of your organization) whose mission is to (include mission or other program information here).

I believe that arts and culture make an enormous impact in enriching our lives.  The arts play a vital role socially, psychologically, and economically in the lives of Philadelphians.

I gladly invest my time, my skills and my financial resources as a board member/audience member/volunteer (pick one).  It is my civic contribution to Philadelphia.  My service has not only advanced the work of this organization and provided much needed programs and services to my community, but has given me personal satisfaction and gratification.

The support that we receive from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund is essential to the success of this organization.  It is not only financial support but recognition of our contribution to the quality of life in Philadelphia.  We are deeply grateful for this crucial endorsement of our mission, programs and service to the community.

I urge you to support the Philadelphia Cultural Fund with an increase in funding for FY 2013/2014.



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