The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation announces 23 project grants

At a special event featuring a performance by John Waters and remarks by President Amy Gutmann, the late Keith Sachs was celebrated and $123,000 of grants were doled out for arts projects.

The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation
Left to right: Vice Provost for Faculty Anita Allen; John McInerney, executive director, The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation; President Amy Gutmann; Kathy Sachs, benefactor of The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation; and Provost Wendell Pritchett.

At a two-hour program held at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on April 24, featuring a performance by interdisciplinary artist, writer, and filmmaker John Waters and a keynote introduction by President Amy Gutmann, The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation celebrated its official launch with the announcement of 23 grantees, gifted a total of $123,000.

“This special lecture is the perfect capstone to an extremely productive launch of Penn’s The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation,” Gutmann said. “This program is like none other: It connects disciplines in pioneering ways; it energizes and engages our community; and, it weaves arts education into the essential fabric of our university. It’s a unique and exciting program that reflects the vision—the amazing vision—of its benefactors Keith and Kathy Sachs.”

Keith Sachs passed away in March. Together with his wife, Kathy, who was in attendance at Tuesday evening’s event, they have donated funds put toward creating a guest curator position at the Institute of Contemporary Art, a visiting professor role at PennDesign, and a professor of contemporary art within the School of Arts and Sciences—in addition to the $15 million gift put toward creating the Sachs Program and upcoming renovations to the Annenberg Center. 

Gutmann and others paid tribute to Keith Sachs’ memory during the program.

Penn President Amy Gutmann
Penn President Amy Gutmann at the April 24 program commemorating the first grant recipients from the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation.

“Through Kathy and the Sachs Program, we know Keith’s spirit endures,” Gutmann said. “We remember and pay tribute to Keith as we fulfill his dream of teaching and creating art, and presenting art, at Penn and beyond—making art an integral part of a Penn education and recognizing how important it is to uplifting the human spirit and speaking about the creativity and innovation human beings’ potential has.”

Though the program got its official kick-start on Tuesday with a raucous performance by Waters—in subject, tackling everything from what he would do as president to his nostalgia for riots—the initiative was first announced alongside the Sachs’ $15 million donation in October 2016, with the expressed intent to expand the arts’ reach across campus and, in the Sachs’ spirit of reimagining what art could be, align art-makers, teachers, and presenters with the University’s principles of innovation, inclusion, and impact. 

John Waters
Filmmaker, writer, visual artist, and comedian John Waters presented a talk at the April 24 program commemorating the first grant recipients from The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation.

That effort began in earnest with the hiring of John McInerney during the summer of 2017 as executive director of the program, and continued with the creation of an advisory board to select the program’s first round of grant recipients, picked from a round of applicants who identify as art makers, teachers, or presenters. 

Still, McInerney emphasized, while the program cherishes its grant awards, the program’s big-picture goals go beyond them—citing the Annenberg Center’s role as a central hub for the Penn arts community, as well as the program’s function as an information resource to connect decentralized communities.

“We want to be a Trojan horse for the arts and get the arts everywhere,” he said. “Because people will understand the arts are not just one thing over here, but really something that impacts their entire lives and work regardless of what they study or teach, or where they work at Penn.” 

The 23 grant projects announced at the event all represent, in some way, the ambition to expand the arts’ reach across the University’s schools. 

One interdisciplinary award, given to Marion Leary of Penn Nursing, will allow her to present a story slam event for nurses to share their experiences; another grant, focused on teaching art, will support PennDesign’s David Comberg in creating a new course that gives students the opportunity to program a mobile poetry printing press in celebration of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday. Art-making grant projects range from the development of a play about a puppeteer’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease to a Wharton staff member who will create a series of Moyra Davey-inspired personal narratives, alongside a series of monthly reading and writing workshops for students, staff, and faculty. 

Director of the Undergraduate Program in Fine Arts Matt Neff, meanwhile, will lead the department’s creation of a new gallery—its location in the city to be determined—that’s meant to host the work of students, faculty, staff, and alumni, but also broaden their reach outside of campus.

“It will be tied to our curriculum a bit, so students in our classes and faculty will utilize it as a project space, but we’ll also have performances there, community-engagement activities, and a rotating artist residency—a multi-faceted space,” Neff said. “What we’re trying to do is engage students at Penn, on campus, but then take that critical mass and have them get together off-campus and be part of the arts community happening in Philadelphia.” 

In sum, the grants are meant to unify and empower arts initiatives happening across campus, to give them the means to be exposed to larger audiences and make an even bigger impact.

“Penn has all the pieces, and what it really needed was somebody to come along and make sure they were all put together,” said Kathy Sachs. “So that all of the different arts institutions on campus, between the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Penn Museum, the Fine Arts Department, music, the library, so that everyone programmatically could collaborate and coordinate, and it would mean students would have so much more to see and experience and have a central place to understand what was happening where.

“It elevates the arts on campus by everyone working together.”

Photos by Dominic Mercier