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The Foundation community arts initiative. 

By Andrew Zitcer

Welcome to the Foundation! Make yourself at home—grab a chair or just find a spot on the carpeted floor. There is food in the back, next to Bernard, the artist who’s creating new works during tonight’s performance. The show hasn’t started yet, but the evening is well underway. Penn students and local residents sit alongside one another, striking up conversations. Folks have come from all over the city for tonight’s performance of the VERGE vocal arts ensemble. Tonight’s host Stef Renee (Stephanie R. McNeal W’91), takes the stage and brings you along on an entrancing, other-worldly journey of words and music.
    The VERGE is just one example of the outstanding community programs going on weekly at the Foundation. The Foundation has already been the subject of feature articles in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Philadelphia Weekly, City Paper, and the People’s Emergency Center Newsletter. MTV Online has recognized the Foundation as one of the Top 19 Local Events of 1999 for the entire nation (, MTV Local section). The Foundation is kicking off a second semester of innovative performances, including an after-school arts education program and forays into jazz and experimental and film music. As the Foundation’s director, I am working hard on securing additional funding and a permanent home on 40th street. 
    A year ago I would never have believed it all possible. I was a junior in one of Penn’s many academically based community service (ABCS) courses. The professors—Dr. Ira Harkavy, associate vice president and director of the Center for Community Partnerships, and Dr. Lee Benson, emeritus professor of history—had challenged me to use my music 
internship experiences to conceive an idea for an arts venue in University City. They presented me with some research that former students had done into the subject; my mind was bursting with ideas on how to modify and further their proposal. My experiences working at WXPN and attending arts events all over the city led me to the realization that many musicians live in University City but have to commute to other locations to perform. Why not simply present them closer to home, and let them collaborate on putting together their own events? I decided that the only viable model was one that incorporated virtually all genres of music and art found in the local community. 
    With the help of fellow undergrads Jon Herrmann W’00, Noah Bilenker C’99, Swapnil Shah C/W’99 and Micah Westerman C’01, I set out to convince the University. I found strong allies in the vice provost for university life, Dr. Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, as well as the managing director for real estate, Tom Lussenhop, and Dr. Al Filreis, the Class of 1942 Professor of English and the Kelly Writers House faculty director. By April 1999, we had put together two trial events: a jazz concert featuring two local groups and an evening of underground hip-hop. These events were a tremendous success, and the Foundation was granted a budget and a temporary home in the Rotunda, a former church building at 40th and Walnut streets. 
    The rest is history-in-the-making. I feel that I have no business trying to single-handedly plan shows for a community that I have so recently joined. Therefore, in the spirit of true university-community collaboration, I have enlisted the help of a few respected arts figures. Earle Brown of radio station WRTI and the Summit Partnership put together jazz shows that drew record numbers, including our season premiere with the Fortune Vinson Cruse Band. DJ Spaceling, creator of the Philadelphia Ambient Consortium, hosted a series of experimental music events. Some of the artists who performed in this series told us that the Foundation was the best thing to happen for experimental music in Philadelphia in 20 years! And Stef Renee, an independent arts impresario, gave us the gift of the VERGE poetry/performance series. By putting these community agents in charge of the music, the Foundation gained the trust and support of multiple communities and became one of the most vibrant arts venues in the city of Philadelphia. 
    But excellence in the arts is only part of the Foundation’s mission—the easy part. The more difficult and rewarding part is getting students from the University to have meaningful interactions with the rest of the local community, and vice versa. Even at this early stage, I think the Foundation is an unparalleled success—and all the credit goes to the students and the community members who have shared in the magic of the weekly performances. Nothing fills me with greater pride than the friendships that have resulted from this spirit of collective ownership. The Foundation maintains strong relationships with the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the Partnership Community Development Center, the People’s Emergency Center CDC, Friends of Clark Park, the Restaurant School, Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships, Greenfield Intercultural Center and the TOUCHH (Teaching Ourselves the Unique Culture of Hip Hop) Center for the Study of Hip Hop. And all of this has come about in the first four months of operation! 
    The Foundation has taught me that true art is about community and common experience (even when depicting alienation from such comforts), and art allows us to gather and focus on what makes us human. In my mind, there is no more vital or obvious way to foster a virtual revolution in university-community relations. To this end, the Foundation is working on creating more opportunities for dialogue and education through the arts. An after-school arts program is in the works with Penn’s Program for Universities, Communities of Faith, Schools and Neighborhoods; the Foundation has also partnered with the Paul Robeson House to present a series of lectures and workshops on alternate Saturdays. The steering committee has also committed to adding more students of color to our working group, as well as incorporating participants from local high schools. The sky is the limit.
    On a personal level, this experience has completely changed my life. It is a dream come true, a responsibility too daunting to imagine, a set of possibilities thrilling to the utmost. I feel myself becoming a member of a diverse community in the truest sense of the word. The Foundation has made me more compassionate, more sensitive in my interactions and more aware of the astounding potential every individual possesses. I want to help make this possible for every student at the University of Pennsylvania. Therefore, as I prepare to graduate this spring, I am fully committed to staying at the University and continuing this work. My goal is to help bring the fiscal and academic resources of the community to the service of the district-at-large, both through the Foundation and other initiatives. If the University continues its honorable commitment to revitalizing West Philadelphia and continues to recognize the arts as a primary vehicle for change, then there is a bright future in store. 
    I encourage you to join the Foundation Community Arts Initiative. Learn more about the Foundation by visiting our webpage ( and joining the hundreds of people on our e-mail list. Come to a performance one Friday night if you are in the area. And contact me with any feedback or ideas at <[email protected]>. The bedrock of this work, indeed its “foundation,” is the enthusiastic commitment of people from all over. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to come along for the ride.

Andrew Zitcer is a senior from Oakland, N.J. majoring in English and religious studies.

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