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Why Aren’t Artists Transforming Mantua and Powelton the Way They Did Fishtown or Northern Liberties?

The Lancaster Ave. Jazz and Arts Festival is hosted annually by the People’s Emergency Center (PEC), a leading civic organization in the area.

August 21, 2014

A surprisingly high concentration of established artists live in the Mantua, Powelton Village and West Powelton neighborhoods of West Philadelphia, according to a new study by a team of faculty and students from Drexel University. So why aren’t artists transforming those neighborhoods the way they did Fishtown or Northern Liberties?

A number of reasons, according to the report, which outlines the challenges faced by artists and organizations in the area, including low public investment, the lack of a support network, a need for stronger connections between artists and the community and a lack of centralized communications efforts. The report also outlines proposed action steps to address these challenges.

Lancaster Avenue represents a "cultural cluster," with numerous cultural organizations and artists based there.Entitled “A Fragile Ecosystem: The Role of Arts and Culture in Philadelphia’s Mantua, Powelton Village and West Powelton Neighborhoods,” the report will be available to the public online and will be distributed throughout the West Philadelphia community. It is scheduled for release on Monday, August 25.

Initial findings of the research were presented at two community meetings in March 2014. The full report is available to reporters upon request.

“We wanted to explore arts participation and arts access in the neighborhoods surrounding Drexel, with the goal of encouraging and supporting efforts to advance these neighborhoods through the further development and use of their cultural assets,” said Julie Hawkins, assistant professor and program director of arts administration in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, and one of the three faculty researchers on the project. “The arts have the potential to play a transformative role in building social, economic and community capital.”

From July through December 2013, the team collected data by meeting with and interviewing representatives of a number of local cultural and civic organizations, and holding focus groups with residents and community leaders at the West Philadelphia Community Center.

The students on the team also conducted approximately 450 short interviews at community centers, local businesses and other locations throughout the neighborhoods. These data were used along with quantitative data and mapping tools to examine population and existing cultural assets.

The study found that arts and culture play a vital role in these West Philadelphia neighborhoods. Residents reported seeing arts and culture as a crucial part of their neighborhood’s ability to educate youth, build employment skills, bridge generations and revitalize community spaces.

The Mural Arts Program is one of the cultural organizations outside of the neighborhood that offers programs and activities within the study area.Current Cultural Ecosystem

The report contains a description of the area’s cultural ecosystem, including local cultural assets like resident artists, cultural organizations and creative enterprises like Spiral Q Puppet Theatre and Lil’ Filmmakers.

Area cultural assets also include other groups engaged in the arts in these neighborhoods, such as religious, civic and educational organizations offering cultural activities and programs, and cultural organizations outside of the neighborhoods that offer activities and programs within the study area, such as the Mural Arts Program and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Larger institutions also play a role, including Drexel University’s programs, facilities and resources, as well as a ring of larger institutions located just beyond these neighborhoods, including the Philadelphia Zoo, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Please Touch Museum.

However, the study also found that significant challenges exist for these artists and organizations.

Spiral Q Puppet Theatre is one of the creative enterprises that contributes to the cultural ecosystem of the area

Challenges and Opportunities

Research revealed that low public investment is a major concern, particularly for cultural organizations in the clusters along Lancaster and Haverford Avenues. The neighborhoods’ cultural clusters are anchors for civic, social and economic activity, and they need additional capitalization to realize their potential for the community. Additional investment in these organizations could increase ongoing opportunities for meaningful cultural engagement.

One way to enhance those clusters is through access to economic development support provided by city and state programs, according to the report. Mantua’s recent designation as a Promise Zone also provides improved access to federal support for these corridors. The cultural clusters should be a key part of funding and other proposals for support, the researchers claim.

Another challenge that the study uncovered was that the neighborhoods lack a network that supports the area’s cultural ecosystem. Cultural organizations need support to build capacity, engage in collaborations and develop long-terms plans.

“We found that there is a clear need for collaboration among the area’s cultural leaders, but many are struggling with their own day-to-day challenges. This prevents long-term planning and hinders growth,” said Neville Vakharia, assistant professor and research director of arts administration and a faculty researcher on the project. “Helping ensure increased philanthropic investment from public and private sources could build capacity and support much-needed collaborative efforts.”

Also challenging is the lack of connection between the neighborhoods’ cultural assets and the area’s civic agenda and collaborative opportunities. The researchers found that artists seek stronger connections to the community, including the neighborhood schools, but often have no clear way to find them.

More opportunities are needed for artists to convene with one another and with the neighborhoods’ schools, churches and civic organizations. An artist support network could be housed in a local cultural or civic organization or a new organization could be established, suggest the researchers.

“The arts have a variety of educational benefits, and artists know that better than anyone. But running programs in the Philadelphia schools isn’t easy,” said Andrew Zitcer, assistant teaching professor of arts administration and a faculty researcher on the project. “If we can strengthen relationships between local arts groups and the Philadelphia School District, students will reap the rewards.”

The study also found that, while the area’s local artists and cultural organizations want to work with local schools, they have difficulty navigating the complexity of the Philadelphia School District’s bureaucracy, and grow frustrated by an inability to move projects forward. Finding ways to ease this struggle could enable local schools to utilize local cultural resources in and beyond the classroom to support improved educational outcomes for all students and to revitalize the area’s public schools.

Additionally, the report found that communications is a big challenge when it comes to the arts in these communities. Residents reported wanting to hear more about what is happening in the neighborhood and wanting arts and cultural providers to communicate better.

Though the area lacks the type of independent community newspapers found in some other Philadelphia neighborhoods, opportunities do exist through communications vehicles such as the People’s Emergency Center (PEC)’s newsletter and events calendar, the Philadelphia School District’s communications systems and Drexel University’s communication systems. The report suggests that civic and cultural leaders could collaborate to explore the development of a localized communications system that would enable artists and cultural organizations to share information.

Other challenges that were addressed in the report include complicated relationships with larger institutions and concern about what their expansion means for the future of the neighborhoods, and real or perceived barriers to access to larger institutions that border the area.

Additional Information

In addition to the three faculty members on the project, the work was supported by four graduate students and two undergraduates: Morgan Gengo and Rachel Olenick, who recently graduated from the arts administration program; Laura Oxenfeld, a graduate student in the science, technology and society program in the College of Arts and Sciences; Lyric Prince, a graduate student in the science, technology and society program in the College of Arts and Sciences; Mirna Norales, an undergraduate political science major in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Olivia Deng, who recently transferred from Drexel.

The research effort was funded by a grant from Drexel’s Office of Research and its Office of University and Community Partnerships.

Media Contact

Alex McKechnie