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Gary Steuer: Champion for the Arts in Philly.

November 15, 2011

Philadelphia’s Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer, better known as the Art Czar, loves funk music, dreads the clarinet and believes that art and culture is thriving here. It can continue to grow, he thinks, with the right help. Our Maxwell Reil talks to the New York native who was appointed by Mayor Nutter in 2008 to champion our creative economy. Photo by G.W. Miller III.

Why did you pursue a career in the arts?

It was kind of the classic story. My parents exposed me to a lot of theater and art galleries as a child, so I grew up with it. Living in a city like New York, much like Philadelphia, I had a lot of different venues for art at my disposal. So as I got older and was able to go out and appreciate the arts on my own, I decided that this is what I wanted to study. It was something I was truly passionate about.

Would you consider yourself more of an art fan with a political title?

I realized I wasn’t the starving artist. I ended up double majoring in theater and politics. I was hired as an aide to a congressman where I would help with certain issues such as the arts. By a fluke, I then got a second job helping with exhibitions at an art museum. It was here where I saw the business standpoint of the arts and realized that, though I was no longer an artist, I could still integrate my passion for art with the tools I had gathered from business and marketing.  

From a marketing standpoint, what can government do to improve and promote the arts in Philly? How much responsibility is put on those in the community?

I think it’s a balance between the two. It’s easy to see with the way the economy is today, and the way society is changing, that art organizations cannot depend solely on grants and loans from the government.

When you moved from New York to Philadelphia, did you get a different feel from this city?

For me, everything was new. I got to experience different cultures, new faces and new neighborhoods. There’s a real distinct sense of neighborhood in Philadelphia, which is somewhat like New York but more intense here. There’s a real entrepreneurial buzz around this city as well.

Does the Art Czar ever have free time to see a local band or two?

Oh, I go to a lot of shows, some of it work related. I’m in this field because I love going to shows, concerts, symphonies, clubs. I used to be able to attend three to five shows a week but with the addition of my baby girl [born in August], I’ve had to cut back a little.

When your daughter grows up I’m sure you’ll want to introduce her to all the art your parents showed you.

Of course. I plan on showing my daughter everything I did. I remember the first concert my parents took me to was Sly and the Family Stone in 1970. I was so excited. I couldn’t believe the concert atmosphere and the rush you get from attending.

How important is combining the arts with early childhood education?

Children have to be able to experience art class in school while also having a place to take these abilities outside of class whether it is the YMCA, local organizations or even at their own home. Parents need to be able to influence their kids and support those who are interested in art programs. All in all, you need a strong school organization, committed parents and driven young artists. The opportunity needs to be there for them.

Were you in the school band?

I was. I played the clarinet but I hated it. Now I can connect with music by being an appreciator. By going to concerts and shows, I still can pretend I’m in the band.

Are there any albums that never left your record player as a kid?

I was always a huge Beatles fan. The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead were constants in my musical spectrum. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was one of my favorites as a kid. I also loved Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain.

What does the future of the arts and culture look like in Philadelphia?

I think it looks really bright. I do believe, however, that if the economy stays the way it is, we will have challenges ahead of us. Some organizations might have to merge to comply. The Cultural Alliance has done studies that in the last two years of the recession, attendance for art and culture events has gone up. Musical philanthropy has also grown throughout as well. Bands are self-promoting more than ever around the city. People have a hunger for new music in this city and that needs to be fed.

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