Imagine the Possibilities: What John Connolly and Marty Walsh Can Learn from Philadelphia

Mayoral finalists John Connolly and Marty Walsh have each pledged to do the following three things if elected mayor of Boston:

  • appoint a cabinet-level cultural officer responsible for the arts in their administration;
  • engage in a strategic planning process for arts and cultural initiatives that is coordinated with other city priorities such as education, economic development, public safety, transportation, and housing;
  • dedicate city funds to arts and cultural initiatives. 

As they campaign their way to the final election on Nov. 5, both candidates have much to learn from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's focus on the arts. During his run for mayor of Philadelphia in 2007, one of Nutter’s campaign promises was that he would bring more resources to the city’s arts community. He delivered on that promise after Election Day when he established by executive order a Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy and then hired a cabinet-level Chief Cultural Officer for the city who reported directly to him.

Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer was Gary Steuer (Steuer left Nutter’s administration this month to run the Denver-based Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, which specializes in the arts). Steuer came to Philadelphia from Americans for the Arts, where he was a Vice President. 

Steuer could not have moved to Philadelphia to run a municipal arts department at a worse time. He arrived in October, 2008, just one month after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent cascade of bank failures that plunged the economy into the Great Recession. But he patiently advocated for his office and Nutter never pulled the plug, despite precarious fiscal support for arts funding. (You can read about Steuer’s trials during this period on his blog “Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy.”)

In the five years he spent as Philadelphia’s arts czar, Steuer accomplished much for the city. He brought in federal grant money to Philadelphia to support arts and cultural initiatives. He also brought in additional private investment, the most significant of which was a three-year $9 million Knight Arts grant from the Knight Foundation.

Steuer acted as an ambassador for the arts among other city department heads and was the Nutter Administration’s point person on the arts for the broader community. Here is how he described his job in a 2012 interview with Philadelphia Genorocity

“My day is filled with lots of meetings. A lot of public spokesperson, using the bully pulpit effect. Part of [the] job involves advising the Mayor. Being an advocate, ally within the City for the cultural budget. [There are] an array of facilities of nonprofit cultural institutions in the city—we’re the entity charged with oversight. … Intersecting with other city agencies. A transportation or streets project that may include a cultural component. … Getting public policy people in different agencies to understand [the arts are] important. Understanding that there is that linkage—jobs and economic activity is related to all that creative action. We look for where there are opportunities within city government to specifically target support for the arts sector.” 

His office collaborated with other city agencies in creating strategic plans “to ensure that the arts community has a seat at the table when shaping City policies and programs, and that the arts community is aware of opportunities for public input.”

He established a baseline for the city’s arts, cultural, and creative communities by commissioning a “Creative Vitality Index” study early in his tenure that utilizes “readily available, inexpensive data on employment and community participation to measure Philadelphia’s arts-related creative sector from 2006 to 2008.” Steuer was able to show that the creative sector in Philadelphia was directly responsible for approximately 50,000 jobs in the city, making the arts the fourth-largest employer in Philly behind education, health care, and retail.

He also launched CultureBlocks, an amazing data mapping project that shows where Philadelphia’s “creative assets” are located block by block. The tool makes it easy for artists, policy makers, grant writers, and others to easily see where arts and cultural resources are rich and where they are not.

Here is how Mayor Nutter described CultureBlocks when it launched last April: 

“CultureBlocks symbolizes the extraordinary role the creative community has played in our City’s economic recovery and neighborhood development. This web-based tool is the first of its kind in the Nation, and it is a testament to the creative sector in our city that Philadelphia is the first to undertake a project like this.  Not only is this a tool that is free to the public, but various city agencies and non-profit organizations will use CultureBlocks in planning, business attraction efforts, investment decision-making, and in providing technical assistance to the arts community – all to improve the livability and creativity of our city.”

Other accomplishments that Steuer writes about in his blog:

  • Establishing a City Poet Laurete and Youth Poet Laureate program
  • Creating a City Hall Art Gallery
  • Creating a performing arts series in the City Hall Courtyard
  • Establishing a Jazz Month and celebrating International Jazz Day
  • Creating a tourism promotion campaign


None of what Steuer accomplished in just five years would have been possible without the support of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

Boston has never had this kind of political support for the arts. The arts, cultural, and creative communities have already made an enormous impact on the city. Imagine what it could do with a coordinated effort backed by the political support of the next mayor of Boston?

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