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Arts Funding, Transformed

by Jonathan Mandell, Jan 31, 2007
 

Norma Munn is happy at last.

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Munn, the long-time chair of the New York City Arts Coalition, is usually glum, impatient, outraged starting in January when City Hall presents its proposed budget – and over the next six months, as negotiations over money for the arts move forward to the final budget.

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Her objection certainly has been to the level of funding for the arts. She also has criticized the way the funds are allocated among the various cultural institutions – a complicated process with four different funding pools, Byzantine formulas, long-forgotten rationales and lots of politics, which I attempted to explain in an article two years ago entitled Arts Funding 101. “It's inequitable, it's irrational, it doesn't satisfy anybody,” Norma Munn said of the funding process then, and has been saying for years.

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But over the two decades she has been following City Hall’s funding of the arts, she probably grumbled loudest about the budget negotiations themselves – which typically began with the mayor (whoever happened to be mayor) proposing cuts in the funding for libraries, parks and cultural institutions. The point of proposing these cuts was just in order to force the City Council to fight to bring the funding back to what it was in the previous year. This cutting and restoring, year after year, was such a regular part of the budget process that it was given a name -- the budget dance.

It is different this year. Looking at the Bloomberg administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2008 (which begins July 1, 2007), Munn seems to have one thought, which can roughly be summed up in one word: Hallelujah. All three of her main objections have largely disappeared. The level of funding for the arts has gone up, the means of allocating the funds have been dramatically altered, and the budget dance – just like that -- has come to an end. “This is extraordinary,” Munn wrote in an e-mail to the members of the arts coalition. “Celebrate the change! And, thank everyone….We still have work to do…but…this is a better place than we have been in a long, long time…”

Other arts advocates agree. “I welcome these changes,” says Randall Bourscheidt of the Alliance for the Arts. “I appreciate the intelligence and the good will that the mayor and the City Council have shown on this – and the hard work done by [Cultural Affairs Commissioner] Kate Levin and her staff.”

THE CHANGES

The Department of Cultural Affairs, as is explained in this year’s budget, “funds and provides support services to the nearly 1,400 art and cultural organizations in the five boroughs, including 375 off-Broadway theater companies, 330 dance companies, 150 museums, 96 orchestras, 24 performing arts centers, 7 botanical gardens, 5 zoos and 1 aquarium. Nearly 950 public schools in New York City have partnerships with these organizations, and together these nonprofits create over $5 billion in annual economic impact for New York City.”

But, though the department bills itself as the largest public funder of the arts in the United States, few of those institutions were completely happy with the amount of funding they were getting from the city government (just a fraction of the money they needed to operate), nor the process to which they were subjected in order to get it.

Level Of Funding

The proposed expense budget for the Department of Cultural Affairs for fiscal year 2008 (which begins in July, 2007) is $153.8 million. As Munn points out, this is an increase of two million dollars from fiscal 2007 (the current year).

(The Bloomberg administration also presented a separate capital budget, for major construction and renovation projects, which includes 195 capital projects in the works by the Department of Cultural Affairs, more than four times as many as a decade ago. The project for which they are proposing spending the most money -- $173.6 million over the next ten years -- is the redevelopment of Lincoln Center. Other big projects include expansion of the Museum of the City of New York and of the Queens Museum of Art; improvements to Snug Harbor Cultural Center and to the Brooklyn Academy of Music; a new master plan for the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater and for the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the renovation of Wave Hill in the Bronx so that it is fully accessible to the disabled; and the completion of the educational museum at the Weeksville Historical Society, on the location of an early African-American community.)

End Of Budget Dance

More importantly, the amount for the Department of Cultural Affairs proposed in the expense budget in January – the so-called preliminary expense budget -- is some $52 million more than Mayor Bloomberg proposed for the agency in last year’s preliminary budget. In other words, the mayor has not done this year what he and his predecessors have done for decades – he has not proposed cutting the budget for the arts.

Arts advocates and the press give four reasons for the end of the budget dance. First, and most importantly, is the good working relationship between the mayor and the new Speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn, and the fact that Quinn expressed almost as soon as she was selected Speaker the desire to change the system. Second is the good financial shape of the city – thanks (as Joshua Brustein writes in 2008 Budget: Round One) to “Wall Street profits (the $25 billion in bonuses in the security sector were easily the highest ever), and the continued strength of the real estate market.” Third is the steady work of Commissioner Kate Levin. And fourth – the arts advocates (off the record) take some credit themselves for having complained about the dance year after year.

Reorganization Of Allocations

Of potentially more profound significance, the Department of Cultural Affairs has changed the way it will give grants to arts organizations. Critics long have accused the current system of being driven by politics – who you know at City Hall or Borough Hall (or who you knew decades ago) rather than how good or how popular you are – and of being intimidating in its complexity. The department is now simplifying the application process, and distributing more of the funds based on decisions made by “a competitive peer-panel review”, which includes representatives of both the “cultural community” and elected officials. These review panels will be borough-wide for organizations with budgets under $250,000; city-wide (with different panels for the different artistic disciplines) for organizations with budgets over $250,000. In an effort to offer at least some arts organizations greater fiscal stability, the department will also now provide the opportunity for multi-year grants.

“What we’re trying to do is make this a fair process, make it merit-based,” the mayor said at a press conference announcing the changes.

The changes “make the allocation of funds more transparent and more equitable,” Bourscheidt says. The new funding process “gives access to a number of groups that were shut out of the earlier process, which they saw as a closed system and a highly politicized system.”

The new system is still far from child’s play, however, which is why the department offers both a page of information explaining the changes and another page of frequently asked questions about the new funding process, and why the department has scheduled six free "public information sessions" throughout the city during the first week of February.

Though the other funding categories have been, or clearly intend to be, phased out, the so-called Cultural Institutions Group will remain; these are the 34 institutions, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Bronx County Historical Society, presumably “owned” by the city (though it is not completely clear what that means) that traditionally have received the highest and most steady government funding.

If these institutions potentially have the most to lose by any changes in the funding process, they also benefit the most from the end of the budget dance, since they can more or less plan their own budgets now, calculating in the amount of city funding, instead of having to wait (as in all previous years) until the end of June.

At the same time, though, the department is introducing a greater level of accountability to this group, with the creation of CultureStat -- a process by which it will measure the performance of the 34 members of the Cultural Institutions Group, from financial management (“e.g. timely audits”) to public access (“e.g. free hours; clear public information”). Starting the year after next, ten percent of each institution’s funding will be based on the degree to which they achieve satisfactory CultureStat ratings.

THE END OF LOBBYING?

If most in the arts community of New York City would see the changes as a positive development, the arts remain in precarious condition.

So, Norma Munn can write to the members of the arts coalition, “It is clear…that both the Speaker and the Mayor expect a decline in lobbying efforts…[T]he new structure should eliminate the need for most groups to spend money and time on individual lobbying efforts.” Nancy Umanoff, executive director of the Mark Morris Dance Group told the New York Times in an article about the change in funding: “I think it’s wonderful that they’re depoliticizing the process. It means that arts administrators can go back to running their institutions and not have to lobby politicians.”

But lobbying is to arts advocates what paint is to painters. Thus Randall Bourscheidt says: “I’m very appreciative that they’ve increased the funding...Of course, it should be larger. It’s one of our major industries. When you see the power of the arts to transform the lives of children, or when you see the power of the artists to attract tourists and improve the city’s economy – these are the reasons to invest more money…to meet both the needs and the opportunities of the arts. We hope to have some respectful conversations with the mayor and the city council.”

 


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