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Outlook From City Hall

by Martha Hostetter, Oct 22, 2001
 

If Michael Bloomberg were still a private citizen, we might expect him to step in to help the arts in this moment of looming budgetary cutbacks. He gave away $300 million in the past five years, and sat on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center. Now that the philanthropist is in City Hall, what can we expect for the arts?

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The Mayor's inaugural speech was a marvel of can-do optimism laced with hard-nosed business speak: he singled out the arts in a list of the city's economic strengths, and then, in nearly the same breath, hinted that cultural organizations will have to be put on the back burner, for now. "We will bring new life to our waterfront and stimulate new investment in housing, schools," he promised, "and when we can afford them, the world's best cultural and athletic facilities." His logic is irrefutable: Most people would not want to put the arts before homeless people or schoolchildren. Yet, arts organizations are extremely vulnerable to cuts; and their weakness has ripple effects throughout the city.

"I would very much like to see a stable year for the arts community in terms of funding," says Norma Munn, chair of the New York City Arts Coalition. "I understand that the budget is tough. But I am also cognizant of the fact that the last time we had a 20 percent reduction, in 1992, it took six or seven years for the arts to recover. This may be one cut that is self-defeating."

Perhaps the best news is that Bloomberg has already gained a reputation as a pragmatist; surely he understands that the arts are one of the city's major engines, intimately connected to the spiritual and financial well-being of our communities. High up on Bloomberg's to-do list has to be getting the tourists to come back to New York. In January, tourism was still down almost 15 percent, and analysts do not expect it to rebound to pre-Sept. 11 levels until 2003. European tourists in particular are staying away, hurting museums like the Met and the Guggenheim, which rely heavily on their patronage. Nathan Leventhal, the former head of Lincoln Center and a long-time arts advocate, is now part of Bloomberg's team. He has had direct experience with an organization that relies heavily on tourism, and we can expect that he will pay attention to how the drops in tourism affect the arts.

Another key appointment, of Patricia Harris as deputy mayor, is being warmly received in the arts community. Virginia Louloudes, of Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York , told me that she is "thrilled" with Bloomberg's appointment of Harris, who has a background in philanthropy, the arts, and business. Harris ran the Art Commission under Mayor Koch and then oversaw Bloomberg L.P.'s corporate communications and philanthropic operations. As deputy mayor, she will oversee the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Louloudes is also pleased with the choice of a theater person, Kate Levin, as the new cultural commissioner. Levin, a CUNY professor of Renaissance drama and a director of rarely done plays of that period, has worked for the city before, as well as for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "We are going to be looking to the mayor, deputy mayor, and the commissioner for leadership," Louloudes says, "to make the case that the arts attract business to the city. Corporations and the arts need each other more than ever now."

Ted Berger, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, echoes Louloudes. "Given the mayor's philanthropist background, he has an interesting opportunity to challenge the private sector--in particular we need the private sector to get more involved with a broader range of organizations, to look at what's happening in neighborhoods, smaller arts organizations, as well as big institutions."

Last fall, the New York Foundation for the Arts released "Culture Counts," a comprehensive study of New York's arts community. From interviews and information gathered in the report, it became clear that the Department of Cultural Affairs--which turns 30 this year--is in need of reform. Subject to cuts under the Giuliani administration, the agency now finds itself desperately understaffed. "Culture Counts" revealed that, among many arts organizations, there are perceptions of unfairness in the department's funding practices. Better explanations of policy would go a long way toward counteracting perceptions of bias; and, as Ted Berger suggests, prompt payment of grants would also be a great improvement.

The best news: arts organizations will not have to worry about free-speech issues while they try to pay the rent. Bloomberg doesn't have a conservative constituency to answer to, and he is not likely to follow in Giuliani's footsteps and wage battles against "obscene" art.

THE BROADWAY SHUFFLE

In the 1920s, Mayor Jimmy Walker patronized Broadway theater--and the speakeasies that sprang up along the Great White Way--with such regularity and zeal that he was known as "The Night Mayor of New York." Broadway hasn't had such a good friend in City Hall since, though Giuliani came close in his publicity efforts for Broadway post-9/11. Governor Pataki followed Giuliani's lead by teaming with the League of American Theatres and Producers in an ambitious promotion for Broadway--the "Season of Savings" campaign, which was unveiled in early January. With Broadway ticket sales still down as much as 15 percent at the end of the month, Mayor Bloomberg has stepped up to the plate to pitch for "New York Loves America: The Broadway Tour." We're back to the 1920s, when Broadway shows toured around the country before opening in New York: this particular tour, a musical revue to 14 cities beginning January 26, is designed to recognize American's support for New York City, post-9/11--and to ensure their continued patronage.

The nonprofit theater sector has not benefited from this kind of government attention or largesse. The city's 400 nonprofits--which include major institutions like Lincoln Center and the Roundabout--have lost millions in the months since September. While there are some bitter feelings off-Broadway, most nonprofits cannot afford to wait for help, and have begun to organize and promote themselves.

In Mayor Walker's day, all theater was essentially Broadway, and it offered hundreds of plays a year, by talents as diverse as Noel Coward, Gertrude Stein, George Kaufman, and Mae West. Today, much of the experimentation and new work is nurtured in the nonprofit sector. As arts organizations continue to deal with the financial hardships caused by drops in tourism and funding, it would behoove our new mayor to consider the well-being of all of the city's theaters--big and small, on Broadway and off.




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