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by Martha Hostetter
Flailing After 9/11
(dec '01)"Artists may live for applause, but they can't live on it."
So begins "Going on with the Show," a recent report on how the arts have fared since September 11. Published on November 19 by the Center for an Urban Future, a nonpartisan policy institute that studies economic issues, the report seriously questions whether, for many arts organizations, the show will go on. "Most of the city's 2,000 arts organizations are gearing up for their rockiest period in 30 years," its authors, Neil Scott Kleiman and Suri Duitch, conclude.
The week of September 11 saw the sharpest drop in theater attendance in history, but that was only the beginning. Since then the three-legged base of government funding, charitable donations, and earned income has been kicked out from beneath arts groups. Of the 150 surveyed for this report, all have experienced or anticipate substantial financial losses. The city's Department of Cultural Affairs budget has been slashed by 15 percent, the New York State Council on the Arts by 10 percent, and line-item grants have been eliminated. Fully half of arts groups report that expected donations from individuals or corporations are being canceled or postponed. Foundations with suddenly reduced portfolios say that they won't be able to maintain their current levels of support much longer, either. An estimated 2,000 scheduled school trips to museums, theaters, and galleries have been canceled--a major loss of income for such places as the Staten Island Children's Museum, where fears about crossing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge have resulted in an 80 percent drop in student visits. While widespread layoffs have not yet occurred, pink slips began to go out in November, and more are expected.
It's not just the smaller organizations that are flailing. The Times reported recently that the Guggenheim--long one of the city's cultural juggernauts--has announced 20 percent staff layoffs and scaled back plans. Other major Manhattan landmarks that are heavily dependent on tourists are experiencing enormous losses. The Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music made ambitious expansion plans in flush economic times; they are moving ahead, though funding will almost certainly be curtailed.
However adeptly managed, non-profits cannot rely on insurance or government bailouts, and individual artists cannot easily apply for small business loans. It's also hard for arts groups to diversify their funding sources. "It's all connected," Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, noted in the report. "If your attendance drops then you have fewer people buying merchandise, and then you are less visible and membership [dips.]"
Arts groups now find themselves in a difficult position; they don't want to be seen as competing for funds with those directly affected by the attacks, and they face the kind of hard-nosed skepticism that arises in austere times: Why should we care? Doesn't the city have greater problems to worry about than whether the symphony will play? The report's writers remind us that we--along with our city leaders--should care about the well-being of the arts because they are a major part of the city's strength, bringing $13 billion and 130,000 jobs into the local economy.
The good news is that New York has strong, homegrown audiences for its arts and cultural attractions. "Unlike residents of Las Vegas, Orlando or even San Francisco," Kleiman and Duitch write, "New Yorkers are the primary audience for their city's cultural attractions." New Yorkers now make up 52 percent of ticket buyers to Broadway shows, up from 39 percent a year ago. Community organizations such as the Staten Island Botanical Garden and the Queens Zoo have actually experienced spikes in attendance in recent months as New Yorkers stay closer to home and seek out diversion and solace.
Arts institutions are geared up to respond to their constituencies: In the past few weeks and months, galleries have mounted photography exhibits documenting the attacks; libraries have ordered books related to prejudice, Islam, and violence; and museums have laid plans for programs to discuss the many issues surrounding the attacks. Some threw open their doors in the wake of the attacks. "Of course we responded," Veronique LeMelle of the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning said in the report. "We are a community institution, and we are in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation."
Kleiman and Duitch close their report with a letter to Mayor Bloomberg, lending their voices to the many arts leaders asking that the city put the concerns of the arts and culture community on the table. It remains to be seen whether such voices will be heard among all those at City Hall in January who will be clamoring for attention.
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