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Culture Counts

by Martha Hostetter, Nov 01, 2001
 

In early November, the New York Foundation for the Arts released "Culture Counts: Strategies for a More Vibrant Cultural Life for New York City," the first comprehensive study of culture in New York City in 30 years. The 78-page report -- widely distributed to city leaders and available online -- may not be a page-turner, but it should be digested by anyone who cares about the future of the arts in this city. It is both a snapshot of the current state-of-the-arts and a rallying cry for action. The report is the culmination of the "Cultural Blueprint" initiative, an attempt to assess how the cultural community can come together and speak in a unified voice. It involved a year of interviews, focus groups, town hall meetings in each borough, mappings, and surveys, and the collaboration of over a thousand New Yorkers -- cultural, civic, and business leaders; individual artists and arts organizations; and interested citizens. "The report is based on a conviction that the cultural community needs cohesive cultural policies, forceful advocacy, and imaginative and pragmatic planning to reach its full potential," says Ted Berger, the executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts. "Now there is a particular urgency as cultural institutions, large and small, must contribute more than ever to the city's health, not only by drawing and inspiring visitors who come to experience the cultural riches of our city, but also by persevering as anchors in the educational, spiritual and emotional lives of New Yorkers."

In places like New Orleans, Baltimore, and Seattle, city leaders have successfully parlayed cultural policy into an engine of economic growth -- to revitalize decaying city centers, and to attract tourists and new businesses. In New York, however, the very vitality and diversity of the cultural sector has long enabled New Yorkers to enjoy the arts without considering how they come into existence. "We've always said, rather lightly, that we're the cultural capital of the world," Berger tells me. "But you cannot take this field for granted. It is a fragile community." Suri Duitch of the Center for an Urban Future agrees. "Here," she writes, "where the sector employs an estimated 130,000 people, the arts may be seen as a natural blessing, something we are endowed with, that warrants no further thought or effort."

The report's authors do not shrink from enumerating the less-quantifiable benefits of participation in the arts -- education and community building, for example -- but they also offer enough hard data to give planners, sociologists, and other number-crunchers a field day. The bottom line: The arts bring around $12 billion each year into the city's economy through job creation and taxes -- a 240 percent return on the city's investment. Such findings are backed up by independent economic research, which shows that two-thirds of wealth is generated by "human capital" -- skills, ingenuity, creativity, enterprise, the bread and butter of the arts. Equally impressive are the report's data about arts participation: Of the some 800 New Yorkers surveyed by the Fordham Institute for Innovation, almost two-thirds went to movies; half to musical performances, libraries, art shows, or museums; and more than a third to theater. A whopping 75 percent reported engaging in their own creative activities -- whether through writing, sewing, or singing in their church choir. A citywide map confirms that cultural activity is spread throughout the boroughs, with at least five cultural organizations in every district. For artists and arts organizations, such information is a tool -- to carry with them into board meetings, to present to their council members, to "hang their hats on," in the words of the Blueprint Project Director, Kinshasha Holman Conwill.

The release of "Culture Counts" was timed to coincide with the recent elections of a new mayor, comptroller, public defender, and a spate of borough presidents and council members -- the largest turnover in city government in history. The report was on its way to the printer on the morning of the terrorist attacks. "All the findings gain added poignancy post September 11," Conwill tells me. "If anything, they have the potential to catalyze the kind of creative thinking that has helped New York to sustain itself in difficult times."

The problems facing the arts community mirror the problems facing all New Yorkers: a lack of affordable living and working space; inequitable access to the city's resources; shrinking budgets and uncertain futures. In past decades, arts organizations have scraped by on an uneven and unpredictable system of public and private support; overall, funding has plunged by 62 percent since 1982, driven down by the lingering effects of the early 1990s recession, the fallout from the culture wars, and government neglect. Today, nearly three-quarters of all arts groups receive no city support. New York's Department of Cultural Affairs, the country's largest arts funding agency, has failed to keep pace with the diverse needs of the city's arts sector, and is itself increasingly undernourished by city allowances.

"We are in a difficult budget time," Ted Berger acknowledges, "yet what we know is that arts and culture are part of the solution to the city's vitality, both economic and spiritual." The report articulates some solutions, including reorganizing the Department of Cultural Affairs to better serve the city's diverse and far-flung arts communities, many of whom perceive racial, ethnic, or borough-based discrimination in grant-giving policies.

Even during the economic boom times, arts organizations flailed. "Ticket sales for Broadway shows are up 30 percent since 1990. Major museums are seeing record attendance. Many cultural institutions have taken advantage of good economic times to launch major capital campaigns for renovations and expansions into new buildings," Duitch wrote in her pre-September 11 report. "But most of New York City's arts organizations have only seen the dark side of a strong economy: a devastating rise in real estate costs." The same small theaters, galleries, and museums that once transformed struggling neighborhoods like SoHo into hot zones are being pushed out by rents that have risen 50 to 300 percent in the last five years. In San Francisco, where technology companies drove up real estate prices during the 1990s, city planners came up with ideas to preserve nonprofit space -- including development on city land, a web site devoted to space-finding needs, and free assistance to nonprofits looking for homes. Now that even the outer boroughs have become expensive, New York risks driving away many of its artists, particularly the experimental individuals and groups that bring fresh ideas and energy to the arts community as a whole.

Wisely, the report does not offer unilateral prescriptions for what it terms the cultural "ecosystem" -- the diverse and far-flung artists and organizations that span every discipline, language, ethnicity, age, and neighborhood. Instead, it offers the broadest possible definitions of cultural policy. "The choice of a family to educate their child in the language, traditions, and history of a particular ethnic group is cultural policy," the arts consultant, Caron Atlas, writes. "A grantmaker's criterion for quality and excellence is cultural policy. A community development corporation's decision to focus on cultural tourism or historic preservation is cultural policy. The convergence of television, Internet, and other digital media is cultural policy." That New York's cultural policy is largely invisible or unarticulated has damaging consequences. The Fordham study revealed, for example, that the city's elderly and low-income youth are under-served by the arts community, and that affordability and access to information top everyone's lists as barriers to arts participation.

A roundtable discussion among dancers, musicians, and other artists, reported by Roberto Bedoya, points to the paradox of the artist's life in New York: Artists are attracted to the city, and yet the city is inhospitable to its artists. Some in the discussion insisted that the cultural community cannot separate itself from other communities: better housing for all, not just artists; better education overall, including better arts education. Conwill finds hope in the close integration of artists into the fabric of the city. After the 9/11 attacks, arts organizations stood ready to help the city -- through contributions of time and money, the creation of school programs, or simply by opening their doors to its citizens. Now, she says, artists are ready to get back to their work -- to mount the plays and exhibitions that get to the core of what New York is about. Culture, she says, is "part of the daily work of the city as much as our subway system."

Martha Hostetter writes for American Theatre magazine.


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