Cultural Enlightenment and the Art of Paying The Light Bill

by Betsy Gotbaum

As the president of The New-York Historical Society, one of the city's most venerable cultural institutions, I was one of the most vocal critics of Mayor Giuliani when he attempted to withdraw funds from the Brooklyn Museum because he did not approve of an exhibition on view. His attack on the current photography show at the same museum is similarly deplorable.

Yet, despite his wrongheaded policy on the arts when it comes to artistic freedom, the mayor in one way has been good for New York's cultural life. He recently has been generous to the city's cultural institutions.

Local cultural institutions are reportedly planning more than $3 billion in capital improvements over the next ten years. Lincoln Center alone is expecting to raise $1.5 billion for renovation. The Museum of Modern Art is spending $650 million on its current expansion. The price tag for the downtown Guggenheim will be $658 million.

About $1.2 billion of that money will come from the city of New York. The mayor has pledged that amount in city capital funds to help leverage private dollars that will have to be raised by the cultural institutions.

New York is a cultural capital of the world, and its monuments to the arts deserve renewal and expansion. We don't have to look to Bilbao and the new Guggenheim there to see what a magnificent new museum facility can do for tourism. Just consider the visitor boom at the American Museum of Natural History after the opening of the new Rose Center last year.

The Historical Society's own new wing, The Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, built with $12 million in private and public funds, has increased by a third the number of visitors at our museum. Many have already made a trip to see this high-tech display of the tens of thousands of paintings, sculpture and other memorabilia on view. Collected since the Society's founding in 1804, the objects in the center represent the collective memory of our city. Sometimes I think we are so eager to show that cultural spending attracts tourist dollars that we forget that New Yorkers love the arts too and are the most sophisticated audiences of our museums and theaters.

Six years ago, when I came to the Historical Society, the city's oldest museum had a notorious history of fiscal mismanagement. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, the place was bankrupt. Despite its great age, the Historical Society has never enjoyed designation by the city as a member of the Cultural Institutions Group, commonly known as CIG. CIG members, such as the Metropolitan Museum, the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the City of New York, have their maintenance, security and utilities funded by the city. In their fundraising, those lucky institutions don't have to look for money to pay for the dull necessities.

Because the Historical Society was not a CIG member, in addition to finding money to restore a decaying building and provide adequate care for collections, I also had to pay the light and heat bills, which are no joke in a four-story Beaux Arts behemoth. Luckily the City Council helped out with money for much-needed renovations and the Department of Cultural Affairs assisted with funds for programming.

Over the last six years the Historical Society has found its way back from near bankruptcy to stability and expansion. But let me share with you something I have learned from my many years of fundraising. Most funders do not want to give money to pay the light bill. Funders in general have a perfectly understandable desire to see their dollars spent on more creative projects that will directly benefit the public or the collections, such as (in the case of museums) exhibitions, conservation, and education.

When I read about the vast amounts of capital funds that the city will commit to its cultural institutions over the next ten years, I wonder if there is not a way to extend the kind of basic support that is now provided only to members of the Cultural Institutions Group. Why not provide such money to more cultural institutions in the city? In particular we could encourage the creative efforts of new performing arts companies and museums if we could offer them some stability while they develop new projects and find funding for them from private sources.

Hidden in the New York Times report of the Mayor's commitment to arts-related capital projects was the news that his new budget will cut operating funds to CIG members. Those are the funds so hard to find from private donors. I encourage the city to continue its capital support of monumental projects in the arts so important to our stature worldwide. But let's also find a way to maintain support for the existing CIGs and also help the smaller cultural groups, so important to keeping the arts young and alive, through city support of their operating costs.

Of course the arts will not flourish in a chilling atmosphere of censorship. You or I may not like every new work of art in a museum. But let's allow our cultural institutions the opportunity to explore, to discover new artists, to surprise us. Let's not just build monuments to art; let's foster the new artists whose work will one day fill them.

Betsy Gotbaum is the president of the New-York Historical Society.

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