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Talking with the art czar


We had a chat with Gary Steuer last month in his 7th floor office in City Hall. The art czar’s desk is in a cubicle next to his assistant’s in a small North-facing office down a dark corridor. But Steuer has a sweet little conference room with a window overlooking the Masonic Temple on North Broad St. In fact, it’s the room that might have been his private office if he had wanted it. He decided he’d rather have a cubicle and a real (albeit mini) conference room instead. It was the kind of practical “let’s make something out of nothing” approach we would hear about for the next hour and a half as the art czar told us what he was up to and dispelled the notion that he’s been sitting around doing nothing much for the arts.

Gary Steuer
Gary Steuer

We had never been up in the nosebleed section of City Hall so we asked Steuer what else was up there and he told us there were Police Evidence Unit rooms with guns from crime investigations. And that in fact there were two more floors, 8th and 9th, with offices that were also used for storage — for dead letter files. Why use prime real estate for storage we asked? Apparently, the rooms are not up to code to house office workers and besides there are no elevators up to 8 and 9. You could argue the logic but you can’t argue the money. Bringing City Hall up to code is just too expensive.

Steuer wore a shiny lapel pin that said LOVE in the fashion of the Love Park sculpture by Robert Indiana. We thought that was a great touch. He got the pin at the Welcome Center in Love Park and was proud that the city had actually licensed the pins from the artist and hadn’t picked them up from some non-licensed vendor.

After a year in office, Steuer, a New Yorker and, among other things, former blogger for the Barry Hessenius’s group blog (read a Gary post) and Americans For the Arts blog (he was the director — read a post) was happy to tell us that he’d started a new blog!

“I’ve been dabbling for a while [in blogs]” he told us, adding that we all should be “cross blogging,” a buzz-word we didn’t know but think we’ll use from now on. He’s pretty active on his blog with recent posts on the Barnes parkway issue, the state budget and a new study just completed by Penn Praxis that looks at all Philly’s public art programs.  We’re impressed.

So what has the former art student turned art educator and arts administrator done in the non-cyber world to show his LOVE to Philadelphia’s arts community? It turns out he’s been behind the scenes cheering on the troops, pulling strings to get permits for events like Hidden City and the Creative Time/Jeremy Deller temporary project at the Constitution Center and getting a lot done. He’s also managed to pull a financial rabbit out of a city hat coming up with new dollars that will soon be available to arts groups in amounts ranging from $25,000-$250,000 for capital projects that involve hiring new staff.

The story of how he found this money — Community Development Block Grant money coming in through the recent US stimulus funds — and got it targeted to arts groups makes a great story, if not a page turner. It involves a tip from a reporter, Steuer’s vast knowledge of who knows the ins and outs of public funding at the federal level, and his ability to speak truth to power and convince a city agency (the Commerce Department) that for more than 25 years they had no basis in law for excluding arts organizations from the CDBG funds. Look for guidelines on who can apply in that program soon, he said.

One other big accomplishment is his creation of a new Art in City Hall gallery! Yes, it’s coming!!! Out of the old Mayor’s Action Center on the ground floor level of City Hall, Steuer is carving an 800 square ft. gallery.  The gallery will be inside the new Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, which is also moving down and consolidating to include in one office all the city art programs–Art in City Hall, the city’s Public Art Program, and the city’s Cultural Development program. Plus the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, which is really a private contractor, is also downstairs. “We wanted to send a message that this office was here.”

The gallery is going to be a modified white box gallery with nice lighting. “It’s an accomplishment. We did it without new money” and with the ability to be more flexible than what goes on upstairs in the Art in City Hall cases. As for the Art in City Hall program, there still will be the vitrines, he said, but the new space, in the City Hall corridor that is tourist central (it’s next to the Gift Shop and City Hall tours office), will be an opportunity to present shows that relate to art things going on about town, for example, the Design Philadelphia exhibit when that’s in town; the Philagrafika exhibit when that’s here…Synergy!

Meanwhile, Steuer said he’d like to follow up on the success of Jun Kaneko’s heads in City Hall courtyard. That temporary public art project, too, was done without public money, mostly thanks to the generosity of Sueyen Locks who spearheaded the fundraising to cover shipping, installation and other costs.

The City Hall courtyard, the portals, all look like good spaces to him for other temporary public art installations. Visions of Public Art Fund and Creative Time projects, a la New York, dance in his head (and in ours, too, we confess). Another temporary installation he helped facilitate is coming soon–pyrotechnics from firecracker artist Cai-Guo Qiang scheduled for December on the east side of the Art Museum. The events required clearing hurdles with Fairmount Park and the Fire Department. Presto, things will explode!

Steuer says he’s met with lots of people in the arts community and is looking forward to meeting many more. He says he’s listening to suggestions. So check out his blog and write him a comment. Now, will someone please give him some dollars to work with?