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Collaborations

by Martha Hostetter, Apr 01, 2002
 

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?

SHARED RESOURCES

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.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

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.

A COMMUNITY-WIDE COLLABORATION

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."

BEYOND BROADWAY

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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