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Campaign 2005: Long-Term Issues Facing the Arts in NYC

by Jonathan Mandell, Aug 17, 2005
 

If the candidates for public office in New York City are ignoring the arts this year -- as usual -- history will very likely exact a precise revenge. The world knows all about Michelangelo and Mozart; can anybody say who was mayor of Florence or Vienna at the time these artists lived there, or even if those cities had mayors then?

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Many more New Yorkers visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art than City Hall; more go to a show than vote; ask anybody the world over (including New Yorkers and people who want to move to New York) what New York City conjures up for them, and most will surely put some of the city's many cultural offerings -- Broadway, MOMA, SoHo, Lincoln Center, (for the hipper, it might be P.S. 1, BAM, CBGBs) etc. etc. -- near the top of the list.

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Yet ask advocates for the arts how city officials treat those same cultural offerings, and they will say (albeit requesting anonymity) that the arts are

  • "in survival mode"
  • "the city's whipping-child"
  • "taken for granted."

Surely, few public officials lack an understanding of culture's central place in New York City. It is more likely that these officials sense that the arts do not need a high level of government attention in the face of what they see as more pressing concerns.

Arts advocates view it differently, some worrying that the city's cultural prominence is already eroding. They believe City Hall needs a comprehensive arts policy, a concrete strategy to maintain the city's position as cultural capital and to take it further.

Their concerns are virtually the same as four years ago, before the current mayor took charge. Yes, Michael Bloomberg seems to "get" the arts. He has promoted public art, has a large art collection himself, and he contributes heavily from his private wealth to various arts groups; his company Bloomberg LP is also a visible sponsor of cultural events, especially lately. But his support as mayor falls short of what most arts advocates had expected. (Ironically, according to a recent article by the Associated Press, his personal donations "help those organizations absorb cuts made by his administration.")

One clear-cut difference from his predecessor is a respite from the culture wars, but that pause might be coming to an end. (See below).

The Alliance for the Arts recently handed out a five-question questionnaire on the arts to most candidates for public office in the city; their responses have been posted here. Those who wind up being elected this year can make a difference by paying attention to the following half-dozen issues in the arts.

1. City Funding For The Arts

The complicated system of city funding for non-profit arts organizations has its supporters, and a much greater number of detractors, who complain that the process is too inflexible, piecemeal and political. But nearly everybody in the arts resents the budget ballet that occurs each year at City Hall, when the mayor threatens cuts to arts funding below the level of the previous year, and the members of the City Council fight to restore those cuts. Bloomberg is not the mayor who began this unseemly game, but he did not end it either.

The city's funding for the arts this fiscal year, at about $132 million, is a paltry one quarter of one percent of the city's operating budget – and, while the amount is an increase from the past couple of years, it is in fact some $7 million less ($20 million less in real dollars because of inflation, according to the Alliance for the Arts) than it was during the final fiscal year that began under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Also of concern is the capital budget, which funds long-term projects such as renovations and building expansions, and which in fact has increased considerably during the Bloomberg administration; the latest four-year capital plan includes $836 million for 161 non-profit cultural organizations, which officials from the Department of Cultural Affairs say is almost double the number of institutions getting such funding when Bloomberg took office.

One of the questions to the candidates by the Alliance for the Arts is: "Would you support increasing the budget at least to its historic high?"

2. Arts As Economic Engine

Any number of reports over the past several years -- Culture Counts from the New York Foundation for the Arts and The Creative Engine from the Center for an Urban Future, to name two -- have established that the arts are of great benefit to the city's economy, and offer tremendous opportunities for economic growth in individual neighborhoods as well. Indeed, the single mention of the arts discernible in the Bloomberg campaign is the "tax credit package" the administration put together to encourage the creation of Steiner Studios, a movie production facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which the campaign touts as part of the administration’s vision for economic development in the boroughs.

"I think this administration has been more open to the idea of arts and culture as an economic engine than previous administrations," said Robin Keegan of the Center for an Urban Future. "They have made it a component in planning everything from Ground Zero to the redevelopment of Fulton Street to the redesign of the [former site of the] Fulton Fish Market and of the High Line."

But she and others think that more could be done to treat the various cultural organizations (whether non-profit or for-profit) as businesses, the vast army of creative workers as entrepreneurs, and the arts as a valuable industry in need of nurturing.

Specific needs include help in getting affordable space for both work and exhibition, and the coordination of marketing and planning.

Marketing is especially important as a way to increase cultural tourism. Some 40 million tourists are coming to New York City each year from elsewhere in the United States, and 40 percent of them say that culture is their primary activity when they’re here. Studies have shown that these visitors tend to spend both more time and more money here than the average tourist. The hope is both to increase their number and to entice them into going to more than just the most familiar institutions.

3. Support For Individual Artists

All of the city's direct funding for the arts goes to non-profit organizations, not individual artists. (Some of the groups that the city funds do give grants to individual artists). But the problems facing these individuals would not be solved by a few grants alone. As with many other residents, both "emerging" artists and "mature" artists are finding it too expensive to stay in the city, especially because of the lack of affordable housing; there is evidence that the city is losing its artists as a result, offering the prospect that the center of culture will shift elsewhere.

Many creative workers - not all of them artists as that term is commonly defined (they also include graphic designers, advertising copywriters, etc.) - support themselves as freelancers, which means they often have no health insurance and other employment benefits.

A particular problem is a lack of sufficient workspace -- this is true for individual artists as well as for arts groups. It is the hunt for such space that has put artists at the vanguard of transforming old decaying manufacturing areas in the city into hot new places to live and play -- after which the artists get kicked out by the increasing cost of living in the neighborhoods they helped revive. Among the solutions advocates are kicking around are tax breaks for landlords who rent at below market prices to the non-profit arts groups, and some adjustments to the zoning code to protect artists.

4. Arts Education

The city’s fiscal crisis three decades ago led to an elimination of most arts programs -- and arts teachers -- from the city's schools. “The school system has never quite recovered," says Richard Kessler of the Center for Arts Education. The lack of support for the arts in the schools is not just a question of inadequate funding. "Though there is a range of ways that the arts supports the whole child - music helps with numbers; dance with spatial intelligence; the arts inspire collaboration and creativity and an understanding of many cultures -- arts education has a long way to go in many circles to be considered important," Kessler says.

Arts education has been making something of a comeback. For the first time in perhaps half a century, the school system is developing a uniform curriculum in the arts, with its "blueprint for the arts" guidelines grade by grade in four areas - visual arts, music, theater, and dance -- overseen by a newly-created Office of Arts and Special Projects.

However, the city is still out of compliance with state requirements in arts education (number of hours of instruction per week, etc.), and there is great inequity in the system; many schools offer no arts programs at all. An irony of the mayor's and chancellor's priority on improving reading and math scores is that some schools got rid of their arts programs as a way of marshalling their resources.

Though every major mayoral candidate offers a plan for education, Fernando Ferrer is the only one who explicitly mentions arts education, promising to expand classes and after-school programs in music and art.

5. Access

Many New Yorkers participate in the arts in one way or another, according to a 2001 survey, which found that in the previous 12 months almost half of the adults had attended musical performances, museums and the like; a third had gone to the theater; and more than half reported doing some creative work of their own.

But more than 70 percent of these New Yorkers surveyed said they would go to musical performances and the theater more frequently if tickets were cheaper.

Cost is one of the main barriers to New Yorkers’ participation in the arts, but it is not the only one. There are physical barriers that discourage the disabled. There are language barriers, a lack of information about cultural offerings, and, according to one report a lack of “cultural literacy.”

Some government policies favor corporations and the affluent over the regular ticket-buying public. Senior citizens and children from lower-income families were found to be especially shut out from cultural offerings.

This is one area in which a comprehensive policy might make the most difference, and a commitment to arts education that goes beyond primary and second schools.

6. Culture Wars

When Rudy Giuliani completed his tenure as mayor, he left behind a "Decency Commission," (officially the Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission), a legacy of his effort to shut down the Brooklyn Museum for presenting "Sensation," an exhibition of over-the-edge art by young artists from England.

Bloomberg effectively ended the Decency Commission, appointing new members of the Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission and redirecting them towards such non-controversial tasks as organizing seminars and handing out awards for distinction in the arts.

But the culture wars seem to be coming back to New York. This time, the fight is at Ground Zero. A couple of months ago, a woman named Debra Burlingame, a relative of a 9/11 victim, launched a campaign against two of the cultural institutions that had been invited to be part of the new World Trade Center complex, one, The Drawing Center, a 28-year-old downtown museum, the other, the International Freedom Center, conceived for the site. Critics started labeling past Drawing Center exhibitions as anti-American, and expressed suspicion that future Freedom Center exhibitions would be as well, and in any case questioned the appropriateness of the two institutions for a site that should be focused on the events of September 11th. Defenders disagreed, pointing out that both another museum on the site and a memorial will amply tell the story of September 11th, and asking what more appropriate place is there to have people learning and thinking about freedom. (See pro and con arguments in two articles from the Wall Street Journal).

Governor George Pataki sided with the critics, asking for "an absolute guarantee" that no future exhibition or lecture could be deemed anti-American or offend anyone. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in effect pushed out the Drawing Center, and gave the Freedom Center until September 23 to work it out with 9/11 families. An editorial in the Daily News said the action was overdue and advised the director of the Freedom Center “to create an oversight mechanism that would monitor the suitability of all exhibits in the future.” An editorial in the New York Times, in contrast, blasted the governor for failing to stand up for "the quintessentially American principle of free speech and the role of culture, in this most cultural of cities, in helping us understand 9/11."

Bloomberg objected to the agency's actions, saying that, while he was "sympathetic" to the loss of life, "the question is what is the best memorial to them, whether you build something to the future or something that looks back. I always thought we should do both... If we are a democracy and we are going to have an inclusive process, we should stick with inclusive processes.”

As mild as this may sound, it was the strongest stand of any of the candidates. Asked about the controversy at the end of the first official debate sponsored by the Campaign Finance Board, three of the four Democratic challengers included in their answers a mention of the word "diversity," but Fernando Ferrer then said the focus should be on the victims of 9/11, Gifford Miller and Anthony Weiner quickly changed the subject to an attack on the pace of rebuilding, and Virginia Fields said the Freedom Center should work with the families "to decide all those details."

 


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