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Is New York The Cultural Capital Of The World?

by Jonathan Mandell, Oct 20, 2005
 

Though the fall arts season is already overwhelming in its choices ( the fall arts preview issues are always especially thick and intimidating), every year seems to bring yet more extravagant “cultural experiences” to New York City:
CultureFest
Broadway on Broadway
Open House New York
Floating Island (touted as this season’s answer to The Gates Project), etc. etc.

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Some are one-time events. Many are annual, and grow ever and ever larger: The 43rd annual New York Film Festival, the 25th annual CMJ Music Marathon, and the 32nd annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade have all become self-conscious displays of New York City’s status as cultural capital of the world.

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But some people no longer believe that New York is the capital of culture -- an implicit message in several recent books. Others fear it soon won’t be, which is surely a reason why the City Council’s committee on cultural affairs has begun a series of hearings geared toward developing a blueprint for culture in New York.

An argument can even be made that the extravaganzas are themselves a sign of the city’s slipping, or at least of anxiety about that possibility. This is not just because some of the spectacles, as fun as they are, are more about mass marketing than culture, more about consuming than creating. It is also because such humongous crowd-pleasing events are not special to New York. Joel Kotkin, author of "The City," a new book that succinctly surveys 7,000 years of urban history, writes: “The economics of some of the fastest-growing cities, such as Las Vegas or Orlando, rely largely on the staging of 'experiences,' complete with uniquely eye-catching architecture and round-the-clock live entertainment.” Is New York, in other words, taking its cultural cues from Disney World?

Heyday

For a couple of centuries, New York has been a draw for artists of all kinds, as a place for them to live, learn, and work -- and sell their work. New York has also served as a subject of their art, something I wrote about in an article in the Arts and Leisure section of the Times five years ago, when there were an unprecedented number of movies, TV shows, big books, and art exhibitions depicting the city. ''Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861”, for example, a massive exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offered hundreds of scenes of New York in architectural drawings, watercolors, prints, maps, oil paintings, the oldest surviving daguerreotypes, even vases and bowls and wallpaper.

But there was only a relatively brief time when New York City, no longer overshadowed by Europe, was universally considered the art capital of the world, a place where the most sought-after new art was created. This occurred during the two decades after World War II, as chronicled in a new book by New Republic art critic Jed Perl, “New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century,” about the rise of the Abstract Expressionists and their successors.

At least since the Renaissance, Perl writes, “many of the turning points in the visual arts have occurred not in royal courts or through religious commissions but in urban centers running at full throttle. And this has never been truer than it was in New York in the change-everything years between the late 1940s and the early 1960s.”

To John Updike, reviewing New Art City on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, there is a reason why Perl ended his book in the 1960s. Updike quotes from a 1947 magazine article by English critic Cyril Connolly describing how New York at that time presented "an unforgettable picture of what a city ought to be: that is, continuously insolent and alive, a place where one can buy a book or meet a friend at any hour of the day or night," a place offering the feeling that "something important is about to happen."

But then Updike concludes with his own terse stinger: “Who feels that now?”

Ranking Lower On Creativity

Richard Florida seems more ambivalent than John Updike about New York City's current cultural status. An economics professor and bestselling author, Florida has followed up his 2002 “The Rise of the Creative Class” –- a class of people he defines as “those who use their minds and creativity in their daily working lives” (not exclusively those specifically in the arts) -- with a sequel, “The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent.”

In a recent essay in the New York Times, Florida focuses on New York, pointing out that there are nearly three million members of this creative class in the New York metropolitan region, which is a third of the local workforce and the largest number of such workers anywhere in the world. They help give the city “an even greater competitive advantage in fields like fashion design, art and music than it [has] in financial services and banking.” As he said at a subsequent interview on WNYC, New York’s strength long has been in its attraction to people on “the creative cutting-edge” and its ability to turn “street-level creativity” into economic value.

On the other hand, he says, New York is not what it used to be, and may not remain what it is. Florida ranks cities on their “creativity” according to a series of complicated indexes of his own devising (he has a Creativity Index, an Innovation Index, a Bohemian Index, etc.). His overall ranking for New York City? Tenth -- and that’s just cities in the United States.

He believes that New York (like other American cities) is being hampered by, among other things, national anti-immigrant policies, a lack of affordable housing, and cutbacks in federal funding not just directly for arts and culture but for low-income housing and workforce training. On a local level, Florida argues, “Mayor Michael Bloomberg does little to help things, having spent considerable energy and political capital on big-ticket items like the failed West Side stadium plan and efforts to attract the 2012 Olympics. The city would be better served with smaller scale neighborhood and community-level efforts to ensure affordable housing and work space for artists, immigrants and entrepreneurs, to upgrade the city's open space in combination with more public art and to improve transportation."

Competing For Cultural Salvation

However New Yorkers may scoff or argue with Florida’s rankings -- or disagree with his assessment of the Bloomberg administration's efforts on behalf of the arts -- the point is not that Austin or Amsterdam or Sydney, Australia have superior opera houses or better theater or more original painters. In fact, in his new book, Florida singles out New York as one of only four “great megacities” (the others are London, Paris, and Tokyo) that have the size, diversity and resources to withstand the current challenges. Rather, it is clear that the arts and culture have risen in importance for cities all over the world, which increases the competition for talent.

Cities everywhere are focusing on culture as an economic strategy. Atlanta is looking to create a new $300 million home for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra designed by architect Santiago Calatrava (who designed the new World Trade Center transportation hub) , arguing that it will excite visitors to shower cash for years to come. Philadelphia has figured out that the arts generate a billion dollars a year there. The governor of Michigan has launched a "cool cities" campaign to help revive such depressed metropolises as Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo by promoting their cultural assets.

The problem Joel Kotkin, author of "The City," has with this trend –- and, implicitly, with Richard Florida’s theory that the economic strength of a city depends on its ability to attract creative people –- is that these modern cities are trying to reverse the way things have worked for centuries. It is true that cities from their inception have been the places that generated most of the world’s art and culture; indeed Kotkin considers cities themselves to be works of art, “humankind’s greatest creation." But the great cultural capitals of the past, whether ancient Athens, Alexandria, Venice, Amsterdam, or London, were first mercantile (and sometimes military) powerhouses. Commercial success led to conditions that attracted and stimulated the best artists. It was the cities' great affluence that produced their great art, not the other way around. This was true of New York as well.

Is Hipness Enough?

While in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution, the function of art, culture and entertainment became (according to one observer that Kotkin quotes) “to make urban suffering bearable,” and in the 20th century, “industrialized mass entertainment...occupied an ever larger hold” on the life of individual urban residents and on the economy of the cities as a whole, in the 21st century, Kotkin says, culture has become many cities' central economic strategy. There is an “increased focus on such ephemeral concepts as fashionability, ‘hipness,’ trend, and style as the keys to their survival.”

The reason for this, Kotkin implies both in his book and in an article earlier this year in Metropolis Magazine, is largely due to a sense of desperation. Cities are losing their most productive (tax-paying) population to the suburbs, and seeing their formerly core industries (such as manufacturing) evaporate and reappear overseas.

“Having lost the economic and demographic initiative to the hinterlands, cities have two alternatives,” he writes. “They can work to become more competitive in terms of jobs, attracting skilled workers and middle-class families, or they can refocus their efforts on providing playpens for the idle rich, the restless young, and tourists. All too often the latter strategy is what many municipalities appear to be adopting. A number of cities now regard tourism, culture, and entertainment as ‘core’ assets...

“A great city is more about clean and workable neighborhoods, thriving business districts, and functioning schools than massive cultural buildings or hipster lofts.”

It is hard to understand, though, why a great city cannot be about both.

What Can New York Do?

If any city can lay authentic claim to tourism, culture and entertainment as core assets, it is New York -- a fact asserted repeatedly during the parade of boosters testifying in City Hall last month in search of a blueprint for a cultural community, this first hearing largely focusing on the performing arts.

Randall Bourscheidt of the Alliance for the Arts testified that the total economic impact of all the arts in New York City is a whopping $11.1 billion a year. “Our city has a majority of the most recognized playwrights, composers and choreographers working in the country, many of them at the beginning of their careers,” Bourscheidt said. “Some of our greatest institutions, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York City Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera and the Public Theater, have strong programs enjoyed by enthusiastic audiences.”

Donna Keren of NYC & Company, “the city’s official tourism marketing organization,” reported on the results of their latest survey: Almost 17.2 million people (43 percent of all tourists) visited New York City in 2004 primarily for its cultural attractions, up some nine percent from the year before. “Without doubt, attending a cultural organization while in New York City is the single most popular activity for visitors,” Keren testified. “The need to eat is the only thing that engages more visitors.”

“Broadway is a New York institution which contributes greatly to our city’s status as a cultural capital and tourist mecca,” testified Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting. “The Broadway community has also made New York City a gathering ground for the world’s finest talent pool, which draws filmmakers and television producers from around the globe to the city, supporting our $5 billion local production industry.”

A representative from Carnegie Hall testified about the ways in which the arts “contribute to New York not only economically but also to the vitality and spirit of the city...It is well-established that cultural institutions are a vital component of urban life, having an enormously positive effect on neighborhood development...We are particularly blessed in this regard, given the city’s massive and amazing wealth of arts and culture organizations”

On the other hand, it was also clear that those testifying see the arts in New York as under threat – “suffering severe economic stress,” in the words of Randall Bourscheidt; “the city’s tourism industry and attractions are still in a vulnerable position..” is how Donna Keren put it -- and if the number of cultural visitors is up from 2003, it is still down from its peak prior to 2001. “City support for the general operating costs of the [Cultural Institutions Group]-- a historic relationship spanning more than a century -– has declined by nearly 30 percent since 2001,” the Carnegie Hall representative testified, “while institutional earned and unearned income from endowments, ticket and shop sales, etc. also has been challenged by a changed economic climate.”

“In order for the performing arts to continue to flourish in New York City, it is important that the needs of performing artists are supported,” testified Maria Somma from Actors’ Equity. “We face grueling 15 hour days that include rehearsals, auditions, classes, and – if we are lucky – performing. We are plagued with episodic employment, low wages and increases in taxes, public transportation, rents and other costs.”

What can be done? What should be done? It was just the first hearing.

"Before I wrap up my testimony," Keren of NYC & Company announced, "I want to invite all of you and your staff, families and friends to the premier cultural showcase in the city -- CULTUREFEST 2005...This year, 107 non-profit cultural organizations and performers based in all five boroughs will be able to showcase their programs, events and activities...CultureFest is a valuable marketing tool for arts organizations. CultureFest provides needed exposure to new and old audiences...And all these people spread the word that NYC is truly the Cultural Capital of the World!"  




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