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Demographics
Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Arts
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"Arts" is an all-inclusive category encompassing virtually all forms of creative expression. Among its major disciplines are: music, theatre, literature, visual art, spoken word, film and video, and, increasingly, the internet.
The Context
Countless artists, writers, and performers work in New York City every day. Together with their audiences (both homegrown and far-flung) they constantly define and redefine New York City's creative landscape, making it an unparalleled cultural feast.

The City of New York administers a wide-ranging network of programs and subsidies to support the City's artists and arts institutions. The Department of Cultural Affairs estimates that there are more than 1,200 nonprofit arts organizations in the five boroughs. Cultural Affairs provides partial support to about five hundred such groups. For FY2000 arts support will exceed $100 million. Including capital expenditures for future projects, that figure rises to upwards of $300 million.

The Reporter
Norma Munn is the chairwoman of the New York City Arts Coalition, a citywide advocacy group. She is also president of the Artists Community Federal Credit Union, and is a former chairwoman of The City Club of New York.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Arts.

by Norma Munn

Indecent: The New Ruckus at the Brooklyn Museum

(Feb '01) In his new blast at a work of art at the Brooklyn Museum, a photographic version of The Last Supper that features a naked black woman (the artist) in the role of Jesus, the mayor has again demonstrated his lack of understanding, both about art and about what constitutes a cultural institution's responsible use of public money. His decision to appoint a Decency Commission is also not based, despite his claims, on an accurate reading of the Supreme Court's decision in the Karen Finley case.

The arts do not exist merely to provide a pretty experience. Artists have always challenged the norms of their times, whether through paintings, literature, song, dance or in today's world, film, photography, performance art and video art. This response to the world is not simply for the purpose of shocking, although by definition a strong challenge to the status quo will shock many people. The challenge from artists comes from what they perceive. The result is sometimes interesting, sometimes a failure, and sometimes stunning in its awareness. It may also take decades for the larger public to recognize the validity of an artist's view. History has demonstrated repeatedly that it is often a mistake to label a piece of art as blasphemous or without merit or simply "bad."

The display or performance of that challenging art by a cultural organization supported with taxpayer dollars has provided politicians like Mayor Giuliani and Senator Jesse Helms with what they feel is a responsibility to intercede on behalf of the public. They rail against these cultural groups and ignore the Constitution, and the decisions of the courts, and insist that these cultural groups are irresponsible. In fact, just the opposite is true. Museums, concert halls, and stages should and must be places of public debate and dialogue. It is the essence of accountability on the part of arts groups to provide that forum, whether they use taxpayer dollars or not.

What kind of society can we build or maintain if we debate social norms only in the privacy of our homes? This controversy is about more than artists and their First Amendment rights. It is really about the right of the public to hear and see dissenting views. That means that some parts of the public will be offended, some will be bored, and some will be excited by the challenge. There are many reasons why this country has absorbed without constant war a barrage of differing cultures, languages, and religions. One very important reason is that we allowed public debate, display and even proselytizing about these differences. We might not enjoy all of it, but the founders of this country created an avenue for the expression of these differences without punishment. Artists and arts groups honor that commitment when they accept public dollars and refuse to censor. The mayor would dishonor that heritage and also punish those whose views differ from his or his Decency Commission.

To suggest, as the mayor has done in the past, that such views might be acceptable in "private" institutions, but not in "public" institutions is misleading, since no such distinction exists. All of the cultural groups in city-owned buildings are not-for-profit entities governed by Boards with exactly the same legal status as any other not-for-profit cultural group. The effort to claim these groups as "public" because they bear names such as Brooklyn Museum, or Museum for the City of New York, is an attempt to equate real estate relationships with legal status and governance issues. "Public" versus "private" has no basis in law, and the media's careless acceptance of this non-distinction has only clouded the understanding of the average citizen as to what is really going on.

We do not have, and cannot have, two classes of cultural groups in the city. One that accepts public money and abides by standards set by a Decency Commission, and another that has no public money and presents whatever it chooses. Almost every museum in the city receives some city tax dollars although the differences in amounts of funding between the cultural groups in city-owned buildings and those not in city-owned property is considerable. Literally hundreds of cultural groups would be subject to the Decency Commission.

The Mayor's understanding of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Finley case is also at variance with reality. The Finley case dealt with Congressional language that instructed the National Endowment for the Arts to include "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" in the list of considerations it uses to evaluate grant requests. However at the same time Congress rejected efforts to prohibit awards that would have the effect of denigrating particular religions, or of denigrating people on the basis or race, sex, handicap or national origin. The Supreme Court upheld what have been called the "decency standards" only after finding that such standards did not preclude awards to projects that might be deemed indecent. The standards could not punish particular views. In short, you can have a decency standard, but you cannot define it so that it is used to discriminate against particular viewpoints.

While some may wonder if the Finley ruling has any real meaning, it is clear that it does not mean you can establish a Decency Commission to decide that the pictures in our museums, the words spoken on stage, the books in our libraries, or the lyrics of a song are indecent and cannot receive public funding. Artistic expression is by definition a particular viewpoint. It is trite but true that one person's idea of decency is another's expression of a different view. That is not to suggest or imply that pornography is acceptable and should be supported by public funding. Pornography and indecency are not the same, and attempts by the city's lawyers to equate the two in the Sensation case were met with incredulous questions from the judges.

Social norms change. The process is troubling, even unpleasant, and sometimes not good for us. Challenges to religion are especially complex as they touch on some of the most deeply cherished feelings of people. The Mayor and others are not correct in saying that today's artists somehow find Catholicism an especially acceptable target. Artists work from their heart, head and experiences; the artists whose work has so offended the Mayor are in fact Catholic. Strong artistic statements about fundamentalist Christianity are part of the artistic work of the past few years, but those generate little reaction from elected officials. Could it be because there is no group similar to the Catholic League?

It is naive to believe that this hullabaloo has no cause other than the art itself. Published information both in the current situation and in the Sensation exhibit strongly imply that either the press or the Catholic League brought these exhibits to the administration's attention. Certainly except for opera, the Mayor is not noted for enjoying the arts. He does enjoy the political limelight and he enjoys taking on the pose of the righteous fighting opponents whom he paints as silly, dumb or "political.".

Many also believe that this controversy is a diversion from the mayor's recent budget proposals, which recommend a two-thirds cut in the Department of Cultural Affairs' funding for several hundred arts organizations. That recommendation was released on January 25. It received almost no attention from the media. As usual a bevy of capital grants were highlighted by the Mayor and the press followed his lead and made much of them. This is the Mayor's last budget and he now has a perfect record for recommending bone deep budget cuts to the arts. Is it possible that City Hall is laughing at how easy it is to get the press, and hence, the public, to ignore the really important issues?

Neither the artistic community nor the citizens of New York need or deserve a Decency Commission to censor art. It would be helpful, however, if the Mayor would stop taking an axe to the funding for the arts. That would actually benefit the taxpayers.

However, if he must go ahead, and I am sure he will, I nominate Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues in which Donna Hanover recently starred, as the first member. Or perhaps the mayor should appoint Hanover herself, his estranged wife, the mother of his children.


Norma's Favorite Sites For Beginners:

  • NYC Department of Cultural Affairs - Official NYC site sings the Mayor's praises as champion of the arts; details a funding policy clearly weighted towards the city's largest cultural institutions; and explains services offered (e.g. Materials for the Arts, and DCA's Artist's Certification Program). Check out Percent for Art, NYC's program for art in civic spaces, where you'll find great images of work by Vito Acconci, Mel Chin, Alice Aycock and many more.
  • New York State Council on the Arts - Committed to maintaining New York State's culture, NYSCA accomplishes its goal by making grants to non-profit arts organizations. Like the DCA and NYFA (see below), NYSCA is very supportive of those programs which marry technology and the arts, as well as arts-in-education "partnerships". Much emphasis on multiculturalism, decentralization and special opportunities for "the underrepresented". Surf this site to find out where NYSCA's dollars are going and why - as well as how to apply for funding.
  • New York Foundation for the Arts - Statewide service organization, set up by NYSCA. NYFA supports thousands of artists, non-profit arts orgs and arts-in-education initiatives throughout New York, offering fiscal sponsorship, workshops, loans, fellowships, in-school artist residencies and more. Info-rich site but a bit tedious to navigate. Super links! See also Artswire, NYFA's brainchild and now the nation's premier online communications network for the arts.
  • Local Arts Councils in NYC - Check out theBronx Council on the Arts, Brooklyn Arts Council, Council on the Arts and Humanities for Staten Island, Harlem Arts Council , Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Queens Council on the Arts for the skinny on grassroots initiatives.
  • Center for Arts Information - Indy non-profit works closely with municipal agencies to administer ambitious $36 million, 5-year program aimed at restoring arts to public schools. Site details the 82 partnerships created since CAE's inception involving public schools and 135 arts groups.


Other Recommendations:

  • New York Women in Film and Television - Insider perspective on how the film industry works in NYC. Interesting series of open meetings about film and tv.
  • Third World Newsreel - Great site for searching by topic for films and video you may recall only vaguely. 30 year collection.
  • Harvestworks - Established for artists using electronic technology, but site is easy to use and should pique the curiosity of anyone interested in the arts. Calendar and good links to lots of other sites.
  • Meet the Composer - Offers listing of opportunities competitions for artists, and for the non-composer has a great series of conversations with composers.
  • Poets & Writers - A bit focused on the industry, but the Trivia question alone is worth visiting if you are a reader. Good resource page.
  • The Kitchen - This center for video, music, dance, performance and literature has real info on video. List of those it has sponsored, presented or worked with reads like a Who's Who of the video/music/performance combinations we now take for granted.
  • Theatre Development Fund - Group supports production of new play and musicals, but best known for the TKTS booth in Times Square. Advantage of the site, aside from telling you a lot more about theatre and TDF, is that you can get on their mailing list for discount seating if you are on the following "students, teachers, union members, retired person, performing arts professionals, the clergy, and members of the armed forces."

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