Commentary

Beyond "Sensation"

by Norma Munn

In the wake of "Sensation," the issue of City funding of art and other cultural institutions has come to the fore. Less discussed and more politically nuanced than direct operating support from the City is the issue of support for capital spending. And within the issue of capital support, the most delicate - and contentious - sub-issue is that of capital support for organizations that don't occupy buildings owned by the City. The questions raised by these investments are several: 1) What authority can the City exercise over those groups receiving capital funds? 2) Should there be a policy for such capital spending or should elected officials be free to allocate as they see fit?

The Giuliani Administration was not the first to designate capital funds for cultural institutions other than the 34 in City-owned buildings (CIGs). David Dinkins made a $5 million commitment to the New-York Historical Society several years ago, and there has been at lease one instance of equipment purchased with capital funds for a non-CIG prior to that. Currently, there are a variety of cultural groups receiving such funds, including the much talked about $65 million commitment to the Museum of Metropolitan Art (MoMA). However, that contract is the exception; grants are more often in the $200,000 to $500,000 range, with some as low as $40,000.

There are close to 20 groups receiving capital funding, and they run the gamut: the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Intrepid, Joyce Theatre, Society for the Preservation of Weeksville, Alliance for the Arts, the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, and the Museum of American Folk Art. Funds have also been committed for the new theatre for Jazz at Lincoln Center in the still to be constructed replacement for the Coliseum at Columbus Circle.

The legal logic underlying these grants has occasionally raised doubts and eyebrows with City Council members, but no strong opposition. While many City Council members questioned the funds for MoMA in the previous fiscal year, they eventually relented at the Mayor's insistence. Doubts about the Mayor's proposal notwithstanding, at least one Council member has begun to use capital funding of this type to assist cultural groups in his district this year.

Once committed, capital funding can be used in several ways. Renovation or assistance in the construction of a non-City owned building is referred to as "performance mortgage;" the cultural group agrees to provide services (i.e., exhibits, theatre or dance performance, etc.) in return for the capital funds. The funds can also be used for purchase of equipment. In this arrangement, the equipment is the property of the City, and can be removed from the premises of the group. Should the group disband, the equipment must also be returned to the City. The City will purchase only complete "systems," such as an entire computer network or a lighting system, not a single, stand alone item.

City funds for construction or renovation always leverage other dollars, and to the extent that this happens, the City's commitment is no different from offering tax breaks to developers or paying part of the cost of a building a new stadium. Equipment purchases are far less likely to leverage dollars, but such costs are often extremely high and the types of cultural groups benefiting from these City initiatives have great difficulty finding private sources for those funds. Since private donors often regard equipment needs with the as much enthusiasm as the Mayor currently does the Brooklyn Museum, the City's capital investments fill a serious need.

As this process expanded from emergency assistance to the New-York Historical Society (also matched by a similar state commitment) to today's list of close to twenty groups, one question has gone unanswered. The cultural community benefits, but where are the guidelines or standards for this new process? Without public debate and full City Council participation, these capital expenditures continue to benefit NYC cultural groups, but without guidelines, the policy aspects go undiscussed.

The cultural infrastructure of the City is one of its extraordinary assets. Continued City funding for the care and construction of that infrastructure is important, but would be better served with a comprehensive plan or guidelines that encompassed all boroughs. The Mayor's proposed budget last spring generated strong opposition in the area of capital spending for cultural groups because of its disproportionate commitment of funds to Manhattan. Borough Presidents and the City Council, in addition to the Mayor, exercise control and input over the capital budget, so any effort to develop standards for the selection of capital projects is triply difficult.

Politics aside, some rationale is needed both for the taxpayer and the cultural community. The latter have no idea how to obtain this money other than to hire a lobbyist and beg!

###

Norma Munn is Chair of the New York City Arts Coalition and former Chair of The City Club of New York.

Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1957. From the Library of Congress' American Memory Collection. All rights reserved.

Check out the Feature Archives!