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9/11/02: Art And Culture

Before 9/11, few New Yorkers had heard of the Flea Theater, just north of the WTC site; after 9/11, people across the country --teachers, mothers, and businessmen -- knew about this experimental theater space. The attacks shut down the theater for a month, and brought attendance down to five percent through the fall. Then the theater mounted The Guys, written by the journalist Anne Nelson about her experiences helping a captain compose eulogies for his fallen men. The play has been running with a succession of celebrity actors to sellout audiences here and in Los Angeles, and the film version is already in production. On the anniversary, a free performance will occur at Lincoln Center.

The Flea's financial roller coaster -- from financial devastation to unprecedented commercial success -- and its artistic path -- from feeling completely unmoored to creating what has become a ritual of healing -- mark the wide parameters of experience in the cultural community since the attacks.

The first and most far-reaching effects of the attacks were financial: 57 percent drops in earned income; cuts to city and state funding; and tapering off of corporate, foundation, and private donations. A year later, however, it's clear that the events of 9/11 have only sharpened the fiscal picture that has been emerging in the arts economy over the past few years.

Most institutions have recovered from the dramatic drops in attendance sparked by the attacks, yet longer-terms trends show that audiences are increasingly buying single tickets rather than subscriptions or memberships, depriving planners of a reliable revenue base. This has as much to do with lifestyles as it does with the economy. Loyal subscription audiences are aging, and younger consumers tend to be choosy and hesitant to commit themselves to a season or an institution.

The weak economy has hurt arts institutions of all sizes, but the larger institutions with cash reserves and the ability to downsize will be able to weather the hardships. Mid-sized organizations, which like many middle-class Americans bought into the stock market during the 1990s, have had to switch gears from building endowments to struggling to stay in the black. Even during the flush years of the 1990s, many smaller organizations struggled with rising rents and other costs; in the current economic climate, many are likely to close their doors.

Individuals and companies aren't abandoning arts philanthropy in droves, but corporate and private giving are down significantly, and foundations may not be able to take up the slack for much longer. With foundation payouts typically set on three-year cycles, current giving still reflects the late 1990s rather than current trends.

For all of these reasons, and according to recent surveys and anecdotal accounts, arts groups are entering their rockiest period in decades: even if the national economy rights itself by 2003, as some predict, it will take a few years longer to lure back audiences and givers.

In addition to wreaking havoc on the arts economy, the terrorist attacks sparked a year-long conversation about the role of art in what's been called the post-9/11 world. The most concrete discussions have focused on how culture can help rebuild the WTC site and reinvent Lower Manhattan. Over the past 15 years the Downtown Alliance Business Improvement District has encouraged the growth of art galleries, museums, walking tours, and free performances. Arts leaders now want to further this agenda by creating affordable living and working spaces for artists, who have been priced out of the neighborhood over the past decade.

In the weeks after the attacks, cultural activities provided an outlet for emotion and an escape from nonstop media coverage. In arts pages, celebrity profiles made way for articles about the solace of an Auden poem or the serenity of The Met. Mayor Giuliani made a civic duty out of going to Broadway, where audiences cried more easily and laughed harder. In a city suddenly aware of its own fragility, some said, the arts might come to be valued "more than ever."

Artists themselves were torn between wanting to "do something" and feeling queasy about ripping tragedy from the headlines to make art. In the community I know best -- the theater -- friends and acquaintances complained that it felt even more "absurd" than usual to sit in dark rooms and make up fictions. This didn't last for long, however; theater people are used to reacting quickly and moving on. The week of the attack, members of the fledgling Epic Theatre Company went to schools to talk to students about what they were watching on the nightly news. "It was not like 'We've got to save the kids,' but 'We've got to create public forums,'" Epic's artistic director, Ron Russell, recalls. "If Epic had owned a space we'd have flung the doors open: 'Please come in, let's talk.'" The playwright Herman Daniel Farrell III argued in American Theatre magazine that "no one else on the planet is acting with restraint in their responses to this turning-point in time, so why should artists?" (This month, many different cultural events will commemorate the anniversary and several 9/11-inspired books, movies, music, and exhibits will come out. See Gotham Gazette's list of events.

As the country moved toward war, many artists turned to activism. The Refuse and Resist! network of artists staged happenings in public squares, wearing face masks and carrying posters that read: "Our Grief is Not a Cry for War." In November, 900 people gathered at Cooper Union's Great Hall for Imagine: Iraq, a reading of eight plays -- many in development well before September -- about American involvement in the Middle East and the EastÐWest divide.

Occasionally, rhetoric about the value of art lapsed into banalities, as in a School of Visual Arts poster featuring two potted plants in the shape of twin towers and the tag line "Art is. . . Healing." In general, however, conversations about art's ability to create public forums, spur debate, or provide forms in which to pour thoughts were intelligent and provocative. In the months after the attacks, as we returned to our media-and-celebrity-driven culture, at least people were also talking about art.

Brave New World Arts, a group best known for their marathon play festivals, is testing the theory that the arts can heal. For two weeks over the summer, the company led playwriting workshops with teenagers who either lost relatives in the attacks or viewed the attacks up close. The teens' plays will be read at the Public Theater on September 26 in a "Reflections of WTC Children" benefit performance. Producer Daniel Schreibman says that many of the plays are not specifically about the events of 9/11; overall, the project has been about "creating a voice for the kids" and "building community."

Corporate Giving

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art needed a new president, in 1999, they did not ask an art historian, or even an arts manager; instead, they asked David McKinney, former president of IBM Europe. In the heady days of the 1990s, when corporate funding for the arts reached unprecedented levels, it made sense to appoint a businessman as helmsman for one of the world's richest museums.

Now, with corporate profits down sharply and a new Wall Street scandal each week, the marriage between corporations and culture seems uncertain. Thus it was with palpable anxiety that cultural fundraisers gathered on June 20 to hear Citigroup Foundation president, Charles V. Raymond, American Express Foundation president, Mary Beth Salerno, and senior vice president for corporate social responsibility at JPMorgan Chase, Michael Feller, discuss their companies' commitments to the arts.

The trio's message was upbeat: in their corporations, at least, philanthropy doesn't follow profitability. When the market is down, giving doesn't drop off, just as in really good times -- e.g., the late 1990s -- it doesn't go up as dramatically as profits. By keeping some charitable funds in reserve, these corporations are able to be reliable partners to arts groups over time. And yet, overall, corporate funding did go up 30 percent from 1995 to 1999, and it is likely to decline some in the next few years.

In addition to the considerable tax benefits, corporations will continue to fund the arts because it is relatively cheap, and it makes good public relations sense. This summer's River to River Festival, an ambitious line-up of outdoor concerts and walking tours in Lower Manhattan, is sponsored by, among others, the Port Authority, World Financial Center, New York Stock Exchange, and, most prominently, American Express. The festival is part feel-good, family-friendly urban party and part advertisement for the solidarity and strength of the Lower Manhattan business community. This kind of corporate sponsorship taps in to the post-9/11, post-Enron sentiments that there is more to life than numbers--and more to corporations than greed and the bottom line. Citigroup's "Live Richly" ads remind us to "Live within your means; sing beyond your range" and that "You don't need a lot of money to toot your own horn; you need a horn." Both ads tout Citigroup's funding of a concert series.

Advice to Fundraisers

If these days corporations need to blanket themselves in culture, many cultural groups are in desperate need of partners. To strengthen their financial positions, many say, arts institutions both large and small should follow the corporate example: "Form partnerships," advises JPMorgan's Michael Feller. Just as companies merge to reduce costs and maximize profits, artistic partnerships can pool basic resources -- like office space and equipment, or marketing budgets -- to reduce overhead, increase visibility, and maximize bargaining power. (Many groups are already doing this)

Judith A. Jedlicka, president of the Business Committee for the Arts, says that arts groups should focus on making partnerships at the small, local level. Companies with budgets of under $1 million a year, including many printers and small manufacturers, comprise the overwhelming majority of all corporations, and yet they are often ignored by fundraisers, who tend to gravitate toward high-profile corporations. In a national survey, the Business Committee for the Arts found that many smaller companies did not give money to arts groups simply because they had never been asked, or because they felt no connections to the arts in their communities. Arts groups have to do a better job in forging meaningful connections with local businesses (in other words, don't just send a yearly letter asking for money).

The Bottom Line

In early June, the Americans for the Arts research and advocacy group released a two-year study of the economic impact of nonprofit arts. Across the nation, the study found, the arts generate $134 billion in economic activity annually and result in $24.4 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues. These are just the latest numbers in a spate of recent studies that emphasizes the economic value of the arts. Armed with such figures, cultural groups should feel confident in knocking on corporate doors, even during the current economic climate.

Martha Hostetter writes for American Theatre magazine. 


At a conference about the future of theater in New York held last November, Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, said that, if Broadway's actors, directors, producers, designers, and stage hands behaved the way they had since 9/11 all the time, then "there wouldn't be a need for this conference." Broadway, he said, had succeeded in overcoming breathtaking drops in ticket sales through a "rapid, collaborative" response.

Off-Broadway theaters and other arts groups mounted their own collective responses, including the "Downtown NYC" cultural coalition and the New York Arts Recovery Fund. Anecdotally, such collaborations have become more common since 9/11, but the notion of collaboration as a way to achieve shared goals is not new. Indeed, at a February conference on arts funding, one audience member complained that he'd been hearing about the need for united action for more than 20 years. "Instead of just talking about it," he asked the room, "what are we going to do?"

Such calls for collaborative action take place at a time when there are a greater number of arts groups competing for limited funding and audiences than at any other time in the city's history. Other than attending conferences and exchanging free tickets among arts professionals, what does collaboration among highly competitive arts professionals really add up to? And, now that arts groups are asking to be taken seriously as partners in the economic and spiritual rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, what models of collaboration between arts groups and other organizations seem to work?


The greatest problem facing all arts groups is the lack of affordable space. To answer this need, the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York opened South Oxford Space, a shared office complex in Fort Greene that houses 20 small theater companies at below-market rents. A.R.T./New York is launching an even more ambitious project in the heart of the theater district, at 520 Eighth Avenue, where they will lease 32,000-square-feet of raw space, to be divided and sublet to 25 nonprofit arts groups. Some of these groups require as few as a hundred feet of administrative space--too little to interest realtors. Using their collective bargaining power, A.R.T./New York will be able to offer rents for 20 percent below market rates. Customized spaces will be built for tenants, who will also share rehearsal space, props, and office equipment.


Some of the more interesting collaborations of late have taken place between arts and non-arts groups. Begun in 2001, Creative Communities is the first-ever federal partnership between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Endowment for the Arts. The two federal agencies together contributed $3.5 million to provide arts instruction to children and teens in public housing communities. The project was born when someone at the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts observed that a public housing project in Charlotte, North Carolina, had created a successful in-house orchestra. It gained crucial support through the efforts of Gloria Cousar, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's former assistant secretary for public and Indian housing. According to Shawn Dove, the project director, "she grew up in public housing and credits arts education as the key to helping her develop into a successful adult."

The project is being implemented locally in Harlem. The Manhattanville Community Center, a public housing structure, and the Children's Art Carnival, a community school, are seven blocks apart from each other, but it has taken this federal partnership to bring them together. Through federal funding and matching grants, 60 Manhattanville residents, ages 8 to 18, receive instruction in book-making, drama and movement, painting and drawing, and other art projects from Children's Art Carnival professionals in after-school and weekend programs. Now seven months into the program, the program coordinator for the Children's Art Carnival, Vashti DuBois, calls the partnership a powerful tool for community-building. "At first we had to prove ourselves to Manhattanville," she says. "They didn't know us, we had to deliver the art, exercise good faith." She has found the process to be mutually beneficial: "Instead of us bringing the art to the housing project, it has been a process of making art together."

"Young people in public housing are experiencing powerful art-making experiences," Shawn Dove says of Creative Communities, "but resident councils are organizing, being educated, and contributing to the process too." Delores Stuart, the Project Coordinator at Manhattanville, who works for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps to arrange room for the art projects and involve adult residents in the activities. Stuart credits much of the success of the program to the time and money provided for training sessions, where housing and arts representative exchange ideas and build friendships and trust.


Patricia Cruz, the director of the Aaron Davis Hall performing arts center in Harlem, used to gaze longingly across the street from her office to the enormous--and empty--Gatehouse Building, at 135th Street and Convent Avenue. Once part of the city's water delivery system, the Gatehouse was condemned by the Department of Environmental Protection and filled-in 10 years ago. Cruz imagined that the historic Romanesque building could house some of the artists that use Aaron Davis Hall, which provides a home for the Emerson String Quartet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Opera Ebony, and Boys Choir of Harlem, among many other groups.

Cruz began to convene meetings about the abandoned building, which many felt was not only an eyesore but a danger to students from the nearby school. Cruz talked to people at various city agencies and at City College, and it soon became clear that there was great interest not only in fixing up the Gatehouse building but in revitalizing the surrounding area. At nearby P.S. 161, it turned out, the playground looked more like a prison yard; at Annunciation Park, an abandoned field house also needed attention.

Last September, at a public "visioning" session, City College architecture students, P.S. 161 teachers and parents, Abyssinian Church members, community activists, artists, and others shared their ideas about how to make use of the Gatehouse building and create neighboring green spaces for children and residents. The final plan is still taking shape--and some promised city monies have not yet come through--but the collaborative effort of what has become known as the 135th Street Gatehouse Project is already yielding tangible results. This May, with funding provided in part by the "Take the Field" organization, P.S. 161 will get new playing fields. The renovated Gatehouse will expand available performance space for Harlem-based arts groups and provide a banquet hall and community center.

One art group's effort to expand their physical space has evolved into what promises to be neighborhood revitalization. "It's fair to say that we were a catalyst for this project," Cruz says. "We brought players together to the same table. . . . I'm very, very proud of our efforts."


Now that Broadway theaters are back on their feet--sooner than anyone expected--they are returning $1 million of emergency funds to the city, under an agreement that they would give back whatever remained of the original $2.5 million in aid once the theaters had returned to profitability. The money will be redistributed to nonprofit cultural groups, which continue to suffer. Three grant-making groups, A.R.T./New York, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the American Music Center, as well as four arts education programs, Arts Connection, Center for Arts Education, Young Audiences, and Studios in the Schools, will share the funds.

A modest proposal: To follow the city's enlightened example, Broadway producers could channel $2 from each ticket sale into a non-profit arts fund--an acknowledgment that arts groups of all sizes and types are needed in New York's cultural economy (and that Broadway theaters depend on off-Broadway to create new shows and nurture talent). For the non-profits, the money could be put into cash reserves. The lack of any financial cushion has made many groups particularly vulnerable to the disruptions caused by 9/11; even modest cash reserves could go a long way toward ensuring their stability down the road.


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