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Helen Haynes: Feeding The Roots of Art.

September 19, 2014

HelenHaynes01onlineCleveland native Helen Haynes arrived in Philadelphia more than 25 years ago to be the executive director of the Coalition for African American and Latino Cultural Organizations, which brought together 18 institutions that acted as a de facto inner city arts council. She then served as the director of cultural affairs at Montgomery County Community College. In June, she was named Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer in the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. She spoke with our G.W. Miller III about how the city’s art scene has evolved over the last 25 years.

What did you see when you first arrived in Philly?

I saw a very vibrant cultural community that had built and supported these wonderful institutions. That said, I knew about Philadanco long before I came to Philadelphia. Philadanco was considered one of the finest African American dance companies in the country. I used to read about them in the New York Times.  It’s funny. I think we under-appreciate our institutions here.

How’s it been going in your new role?

I’ve been very encouraged by the support and the goodwill that has come from the cultural community as a whole. I’m renewing old friendships. I worked in the Philadelphia area for a while, for more than 25 years. But for the last 13, I was out in Montgomery County. I was always a Philadelphia resident. I live in Mt. Airy.

I’m just so impressed by the amount of activity, commitment, creativity and innovation that has taken place in the city, even since I have been in Montgomery County. The things that have transpired have been tremendous.

What have you seen that stands out?

Things like Crane Arts and the Fringe  building, and events like PIFA. Back when I was working in Philadelphia, the renaissance was in the neighborhoods, with the neighborhood institutions. Many of them did capital development 20 years ago and really built up their operations. They really became anchors for their communities.

Which institutions?

Like Freedom Theater, the Philadelphia Clef Club, Taller Puertorriqueno, the Community Education Center, Philadanco, of course. The African American Museum. Fleisher. There are many of them that are rooted in neighborhoods that were important and vital developments in their neighborhoods. The problem is that, as I come back into Philadelphia, what I’m finding is that many of those institutions – not all of them – are in dire straits. They are sitting on the precipice.

Why is that?

Basically because they haven’t been getting major foundation funding in the city. The two larger foundations have not been funding them for a variety of reasons. Even with the burden of their considerable building expenses and operating expenses, they’ve remained open. They’ve remained open because those organizations hustle! They have good earned income. They operate educational programs.

Also, they have tremendous volunteer support and engagement from their communities. They’ve kept their doors open despite the fact that they have not received major foundation funding. They’re being starved by the current funding climate.

What can you do in your position to assist?

I hope we can do quite a bit. We developed a huge culture database called Culture Blocks a couple of years ago. That created a database that people could go to to find out what assets exist in their communities – not just cultural but libraries, schools, other assets in their communities.

What we’re trying to do is make a case as to why it’s important to support neighborhood institutions. Where they exist, property values rise, crime goes down, ethnic tension goes down, educational outcomes rise, the economics in communities become better … even with just small institutions.
Is the idea to influence the community folks or politicians or what?

The idea is to influence funders. And to bring together a group of service providers as stakeholders to work with some of the institutions I named and others – to come up with strategies for sustainability.

What’s your role in all this?

My role as the chief cultural officer is really involved with policy. We try to organize and convene. The ongoing projects of this office deal with public art. The city owns 1,500 pieces of public art. It was the first city in the United States to establish a public arts program. We preserve and maintain the public art in the city – sculptures, murals among other things. We also commission new work through the percent of art program.

Is it possible to directly impact the individual artists?

Absolutely. You do when you support community institutions. They’re the ones employing and presenting artists locally.

Study after study says that people first engage or encounter culture and the arts in their communities. That also feeds to the big institutions. It feeds up. To keep the trees healthy, you have to feed the roots.  That’s what we’re trying to do.

Philadelphia has always been a great music city. A lot of people come here to record today. It’s been a hotbed for great movements in music. It’s always been a great jazz city. The Philadelphia jazz musician is feared. We have some of the finest jazz musicians in the world. And they are the most well-traveled artists. They perform internationally. They’re appreciated more there than they are here.

How do we change that?

We have to change that. It has a lot to do with how we promote the city, how we support the city.

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