When Gabriela Sánchez was appointed executive director of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund last April, it was a full circle moment. The 32-year-old multidisciplinary artist found herself overseeing the philanthropic organization that, nearly a decade prior, had helped her own theater company get off the ground.
“A year ago, I had never imagined that I would be a funder,” Sánchez told Billy Penn. “And then this opportunity presented itself, and it’s now been a new world to me. I love this.”
Over her decade-long career, Sánchez’s work has focused on addressing issues of gentrification, feminism, and Latinidad. Now, at the helm of the Cultural Fund — a public-private nonprofit established in 1991 to enhance the arts citywide by offering grants and fiscal sponsorship — she gets to help others express their own artistic ideals.
Above all, her mission is to provide greater access to small arts organizations, she said, with a focus on social justice, equity, diversity, and bilingualism.
Just holding the position she does sends a message, Sánchez said. “This is part of the change that needs to happen, for young people to see a Latina in the world of philanthropy, especially in the arts.”
Growing up, Sánchez was surrounded by role models of her own. She spent her early childhood in North Philadelphia living with her grandmother, who left her husband in Puerto Rico to bring her children to Philly in search of a better life. She recalled happy summers spent at camps put on by Taller Puertorriqueño, and her dream of someday becoming an artist took hold.
When her grandmother died, Sánchez was 13. She moved in with her parents in West Philadelphia, where they were “the only [Latino family] on the block,” she recalled.
After graduating from the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and earning a theater arts degree from Temple University, Sánchez set out to create artistic expression spaces where people like herself would see themselves represented. She began doing photography, poetry, and teaching others — and inspiring and being inspired by the other artistic women in her family.
Sánchez’s mother, who had always collected art pieces and antiques, became a self-taught visual artist, taking up painting in her 40s. Sánchez’s sister, meanwhile, is playwright and producer Quiara Alegría Hudes, known for writing the book of the musical “In the Heights” and for being the first Latina to win a Pulitzer Prize for her theatrical work.
“My sister has been a great role model, and she says I am her muse,” Sánchez said.
It was in her early twenties that Sánchez began forming Power Street Theatre Company, kickstarting the group with $3,000 in savings and building it out with a grant from the Cultural Fund.
She returned to her childhood stomping ground, taking a role as director of cultural enrichment and facility manager at Taller Puertorriqueño, and also became involved in all kinds of community arts initiatives, including running an after-school program for teens with the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, and working with groups like Conflict Resolution Theatre and Philadelphia Young Playwrights.
She recalled putting on a show about gentrification, and not even knowing if anyone would show up — then getting a standing ovation.
“My idea of success shifted over time,” Sánchez said. “And what success really looked like for me was like creating something out of nothing, creating something new.”
At the Cultural Fund, part of her job is to elevate the conversation and let City Council and funders know how the arts impact the city. As executive director, she hopes to spur projects that are intentional about using the arts as a possible solution to public safety, and has plans to make the grant application process more accessible to the Spanish-speaking community.
She thinks often about what her grandmother from Puerto Rico would feel upon seeing her granddaughter in this leadership position.
“I think it is beyond what she probably could have imagined,” Sánchez said. “It’s not just about me, but what are the sacrifices that have been made for me to be here. I feel this is exactly what I need to be doing.”