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The Arts and Albany

by Martha Hostetter, Aug 01, 2002
 

In the new state budget, state lawmakers gave the New York State Council for the Arts the same amount of money as last year -- $44 million to give as grants for artists and institutions. In a total budget of $89.6 billion, this amounts to one half of a tenth of one percent. But everything is relative, and in a year of a severe economic problems and low expectations, this can be greeted as a success.

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Before this year, the state arts budget has grown annually since 1997, thanks to the advocacy of the New York City Arts Coalition and other city groups. Each spring, teams head to the state capital for "Arts Day," armed with stories about what's happening in the city's sprawling cultural scene. While most are arts professionals, occasionally an audience member or other non-professional will make the trip. Once, the mother of a young man who had joined TADA„a city group that involves children and teens, many from low-income communities, in musical theater„went to Albany to tell lawmakers how culture had not only made a difference in the life of her son, but in her own life, as well.

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It is this kind of personal testimony, says Norma Munn, chairperson of NYC Arts Coalition, that gets the ear of Albany lawmakers. Her organization recruits people to fill buses, arms them with briefing materials, and shapes the teams' overall message. This year's message„about the need for stability in funding„seems to have been heard. Although many argue that power in Albany lies in the hands of the governor, the speaker of the assembly, and the leader of the senate, at least for arts advocates, going directly to individual legislators has produced results. (About 75 percent of the time, Munn estimates, advocates are paired with the legislators who represent their organization's district, and can thus provide specific information tailored to the audience.)

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And yet, state budget increases for the arts haven't kept pace with inflation, and there are now many more arts organizations competing for limited funds. As a benchmark for Albany, many arts advocates recall the "glory days" of Nelson Rockefeller, who, in 1960 as governor, created the New York State Council on the Arts before there was even an National Endowment of the Arts, and proceeded to fund culture at levels not seen before or since.

The November Elections

The arts spend most of the time under the political radar, emerging occasionally over a first amendment issue, and then just as quickly dropping out of sight. (When Giuliani threatened to create a "decency commission" to vet city-funded art, then-city comptroller and now gubernatorial candidate Carl McCall scored points with many New Yorkers when he quipped that the proposed commission on decency "ought to look at all political operations at City Hall."

Even for many arts professionals, culture is not a make-or-break issue. Norma Munn points to the state senate race in Manhattan's 26th district as a litmus test for the arts community. Democratic incumbent state senator Liz Krueger faces Republican challenger Andrew Eristoff, a former Upper East Side council member and commissioner of finance who is now the Republican Party Chairman. Krueger has a long and impressive record on housing rights and consumer protections„typical Democratic issues, which appeal to the many liberally minded in the arts community. Eristoff, on the other hand, is cut from Bloomberg's cloth; he is a fiscal conservative who has been a loyal and high-profile patron of the arts, particularly dance. It is tough to say how most arts professionals would vote. (Fortunately, as Munn points out, few live on the Upper East Side.)

Albany and Rebuilding

An issue of great concern to the arts community is the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. "Creative Downtown," a report on the potential role of culture in rebuilding that was released in late July, and based on public discussions organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the Arts Coalition, makes clear that artists care about more than just a memorial. Many believe that rebuilding creates an opportunity for an economic and social transformation of Lower Manhattan. The goals described„creating a 24/7 community, preserving affordable residential and work space„mesh with the goals of many civic planners and community leaders.

Recommendations focus, not surprisingly, on real estate. To prevent the crowd-out of artists that began before 9/11 and that, many fear, will be exacerbated by commercial rebuilding, the report calls on legislators to: establish an arts and cultural land trust; construct affordable performance spaces; and issue "arts bonds" for capital projects, among other proposals.




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