It’s no secret that the pandemic has taken a toll on Philly’s creative class. The region’s arts and culture industry has lost roughly $1 million in revenue every day since March 2020, according to a report from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, a projection that translates to about $371.7 million in total.
Some of the larger cultural institutions took a hit, of course. But as Michael Forman, founder of FS Investments and an avid art collector notes: “The Franklin Institute’s going to be fine, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art is going to be fine, and The Barnes is going to be fine.”
But what about the smaller arts institutions that “play a critical role in the community and in the neighborhoods?” What about emerging artists, particularly those traditionally underserved even before the pandemic, who may not have the backing to keep going?
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Never ones to sit back and watch, Forman and his wife, Jennifer Rice, have committed to reviving just those groups with Art Works, a partnership launched in March by their Forman Arts Initiative, the Philadelphia Foundation and Drexel University, that will award $3 million in grants for community-based organizations and emerging artists, primarily those of color and other underrepresented communities. (FS Investments is a Citizen contributor, as well.)
The awards could be transformative: The program will select four organizations annually to receive two-year, unrestricted grants of up to $200,000 per year; four emerging artists will receive two-year grants of $10,000 per year. (The program is open to both visual and performing artists.)
“One lesson I’ve learned over the last couple of years is that you can’t think big before you think small. You have to look at your community and your neighborhood,” says Rice who, along with Forman, has been an avid art collector and supporter of the arts for years.
In early 2020 the couple was preparing to launch Forman Arts Initiative (FAI) with the goal of supporting community-based arts and creativity in Philadelphia through programming, and advocacy. They’d just brought together a group of nearly 25 artists, educators, and creators of all walks for a fact-finding exercise of sorts, to explore how they could have a transformative effect on Philly’s arts community. Then, the pandemic hit.
“You have to look at your community and your neighborhood and your environments. And you don’t [necessarily] need to go in and change things. You need to go in and identify what’s working. There’s a lot that’s wrong, but find those kernels of hope and inspiration.”
Determined to still do something, the couple decided that, instead of tabling their plans or iterating ad nauseam, they would dive in, learning as they went and being open to whatever the future held. In addition to the grants, Art Works will also tap into Drexel’s Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships to pair students with artists, a win-win opportunity to provide the artists with extra support, and students with firsthand learning experiences.
“The pandemic showed how financially fragile both BIPOC communities and the arts and culture sector were. Chipping away at the disparity in investing in works by BIPOC artists and community-based organizations is one of the most important places to start,” says Pedro A. Ramos, president and CEO of Philadelphia Foundation. “Our hope is that this program gives individual artists and nonprofits an opportunity to develop works that help others challenge their own perspectives. And there is no better time than now, as the nation is undergoing a reckoning on equity, to do just that.”
Calls for grantees wrapped up last week; coincidentally, 59 organizations applied, as did 59 individual artists. Applicants include dance companies, community-based arts organizations, theater companies, performance venues, schools, health organizations, environmental groups, activists groups, social service providers, and multi-service community agencies. Applications will be reviewed by a panel of nine staffers from FAI and Philadelphia Foundation throughout the summer, with The Citizen continuing to cover the project as it unfolds.
Rice and Forman sat down for a Zoom interview to talk about their unwavering love for Philadelphia, and the art and artists who make it home.
Jessica Blatt Press: You are both longtime champions of Philadelphia and the arts community here. What made Art Works the program you wanted to bring to fruition—why this, and why now?
Michael Forman: I think you have to start with a couple of premises about who we are. First of all, we live in Philadelphia, we’ve sent our kids to school in Philadelphia, I founded my business in Philadelphia. And we’re here by choice. We deeply care about this city, and we think it’s a great city. We’ve been engaged in the arts and in various civic endeavors for our whole adult lives. And we come from a background that [taught us that] you need to give back, that we’re lucky to be who we are, where we are, and we owe that duty to give back.
Pre-pandemic, we were thinking about what we’re going to do with our collection and what we’re going to do with the arts. Then the pandemic hit and we started thinking about what we can do to help the really good and really important small and mid-size institutions that play a critical role in the community and in the neighborhoods?
So we developed a program where we could do that with Pedro Ramos at Philadelphia Foundation and John Fry at Drexel’s Lindy Institute. The three organizations together are going to look to make an impact in the cultural community, and really focus on neighborhood institutions and institutions that are led by Black and Brown folks who serve Black and Brown people in Philadelphia.
Jennifer Rice: Michael and I have been thinking and dreaming about FAI for a long time. We were just starting to really get into the nuts-and-bolts of brainstorming and mission-setting and all of that for FAI and then Covid hit. But when we sort of got to the other side of Covid, we came back feeling like we just got to start doing. And that’s kind of what Art Works was built out of—this desire to just get going, start doing, so that we can have immediate impact and also start to learn and have this be an iterative process.
Hopefully our grantees will learn a lot through the process, but we’ll also learn a lot through the process about how we want to build our programs. It’s not going to be perfect, we don’t want it to be perfect, but let’s just start doing something.
JBP: What do you think people who are not engaged in the arts here would be surprised to know about the richness of the arts in Philadelphia—people think of New York and L.A., but can you talk about why Philly is such a special place for the arts?
MF: There’s a rich history in the arts in Philadelphia. Jazz, one of the greatest American art forms, started in the United States and started in Philadelphia, if you look back to the roots of [John] Coltrane and the roots of the music of the 60s and 70s. So certainly from a music perspective we’ve been on the cutting edge for a long time. And that’s not celebrated enough, in my view.
And then if you look at the visual arts, to have institutions like The Barnes, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, like the Franklin Institute, and if you think of the important role that cultural organizations will play in the growth of the city, it’s really significant. But what we’re really looking at is what are those cultural and arts institutions that serve the inner city, that are so important to the inner city—things like libraries, small institutions and institutions that become the fabric of the city—that’s what we’re looking to support and help grow. We’re proud of the arts scene here, and we want to support local artists, we want to make this a place where local artists can come and thrive and really improve their experience.
JR: We have so much raw material already happening here. I think where Philadelphia as a city has sort of fallen down is that we’ve never been really good at promoting ourselves from any kind of collective point of view around what we have to offer. We have individual institutions and individual sectors sort of promoting themselves—but we’ve never taken this holistic approach to really identifying what is great and special about Philadelphia. But we don’t have to make it up—all the raw material is here.
Another thing that Philadelphia has going for it is our [relatively] low cost of living. It’s a livable, affordable city, in every aspect. And on top of that, artists and organizations can be a little bit more experimental here, because you’re not under the white-hot light of New York City or L.A.
JBP: What genres or pieces of art are you two drawn to?
JR: We started collecting works on paper and photography through local galleries and student auctions. As our interest grew we began collecting Abstract Expressionist works specifically. Over the last 10 years our focus has shifted to Modern and Contemporary works by women and artists of color.
My favorite work hangs in our living room. It’s a painting by Mark Bradford from his Amendment Series. Bradford is one of my favorite artists. This is the first piece of his that we bought. Not only is it a beautiful painting but it references the ninth amendment which also happens to be a pivotal amendment in the support for a woman’s right to choose. So it speaks to us on multiple levels. We’ve also been lucky enough to collect broadly from several artists we’ve developed relationships with, including Cecily Brown, Sean Scully, Eric Fischl and Rashid Johnson.
JBP: Can you talk about the way Art Works will involve not just individual artists but arts organizations, as well as the next generation of young people interested in the arts and arts careers, through the partnership with Drexel?
MF: I think as a city we have never been great—and this is across the civic community and the business community—in really collaborating. I’ve observed that from my business activities and my civic activities—there’s not enough collaboration, there’s not enough partnership, there’s not enough mentoring—and we just kind of used all of that when we were looking at FAI.
We were out with one of the great museum leaders in the city the other night for dinner, and he was saying that the best thing you guys can do is kind of set up a lobbying and trade group for all of the cultural institutions because they’re really powerful on their own but they never get together, they never collaborate, they never partner together. Hopefully FAI can give the arts and cultural institutions a voice, hopefully we can get them to collaborate. Hopefully we can attract artists to Philadelphia and make Philadelphia a richer city.
“We’re proud of the arts scene here, and we want to support local artists, we want to make this a place where local artists can come and thrive and really improve their experience,” says Forman.
JR: In terms of sort of sprinkling seeds of hope and change around, I think there really is something in that. Michael and I deeply and truly appreciate the ability to engage with art, engage with artists, to be a part of the creative process, and wanted to find a way to share that. And that’s part of the seeds of this program.
But also, at a grassroots level, recognizing that another thing Philadelphia needs to do is start building career pathways, across multiple sectors, and one way we can be influential is around building career pathways in the arts and culture sector. And recognizing that there is not a whole lot of diverse representation in that sector right now. And to really kind of encourage the next generation; that generation needs to see themselves in positions in the art world—not just as artists, but as curators and directors, and all the other ways they can see themselves. And we’ve got to start that pipeline now to plant the seeds to grow it.
JBP: What can other Philadelphians do if we want to really transform Philly into a hub for often-marginalized artists who are not getting the attention and support they need?
JR: There’s a lot of criticism happening right now. There’s a lot of tearing things down. And some things legitimately need to be torn down. But I think Michael and I always operate from the premise of, instead of focusing on what’s wrong, let’s focus on what’s right. Let’s illuminate the things that are really working well.
And I think what I would want to learn from the arts community and from people who engage in the arts community, who maybe are consumers of the arts community, is finding out what’s working, what’s working well, even in small ways. You have to look at your community and your neighborhood and your environments. And you don’t [necessarily] need to go in and change things. You need to go in and identify what’s working. There’s a lot that’s wrong, but find those kernels of hope and inspiration. And I think in some ways that’s where Michael and I feel like we can be impactful.
We’re not artists. But where we can be helpful is we can help identify those kernels that are working and give them the tools that they don’t have to succeed. We’re doing something that we want to feel collaborative, we want to feel open and inclusive. And our goal is to be partners in this work with people who are already doing it, with people who are considering doing it.
And Philadelphia plays a significant role in that. It is not by accident that Philadelphia is an important part in how we think about what we’re doing. We appreciate this city, we love this city. And we feel like this is the one way that we can give back.
MF: We’re also mindful that we live in a city where 25 percent of people live below the poverty line. And we believe one of the important solutions for that is education. And [we’re] really thinking about the connection between arts and culture and education, and the impact that art can have on learning and education and how we can help with that.
Many museums think about that; the model now is mostly let’s bus kids to the museums and give them that experience. And that’s probably a very good model, but [we’re] really thinking about how do you bring that to the schools, how do you let children experience art and how art can help them develop their learning and their creativity?
JBP: Many people feel intimidated by the art world—how can Philadelphians get their toes wet?
MF: Well you have five really good arts schools in this region, so you do have a vibrant art community. We started collecting by going to all the great auctions that they would have at the schools. People ask me all the time how do I start? And it’s not really hard to start. There’s a small gallery scene, there is a great art scene at the schools, there are great museums. So all of the resources are here if people want to engage. And I think Philadelphians don’t recognize how good The Barnes is, how good the PMA is, what each of those institutions have to offer. Hopefully we can help facilitate that.
JR: That is definitely part of our long-term thinking. we haven’t figured that out yet but I think there is something that is truly democratic about engaging with art. I agree with you, some people don’t come to it with that point of view. I think kids generally do, because they’re not saddled with all the baggage that adults have. But there’s no right or wrong way to engage with art. There’s no right or wrong way to respond to that. And the people that will first and foremost tell you that are the artists themselves.
So I think for Michael and I, in addition to supporting organizations, we really are trying to continue to think about breaking down those barriers, how you can kind of embed art into people’s experiences so that it’s not something that people have to make an appointment for, and walk through the door and go do. But how can we think creatively and how can we expand this sort of network and web of art and experiences so that people can bump into it? So that you don’t have to plan?
It’s sort of a very esoteric concept, but the goal is to really think about how to bring experiences that are not overly curated, that are not in a building that you have to have a ticket to go see, but that are more just sort of spread out and embedded into people’s lives so they don’t have to think about it in a way. That they can just sort of bump into art.
Interview has been edited and condensed.Header photo courtesy of Michael Forman and Jennifer Rice