Gotham Gazette

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At a conference about the future of theater in New York held last November, Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, said that, if Broadway's actors, directors, producers, designers, and stage hands behaved the way they had since 9/11 all the time, then "there wouldn't be a need for this conference." Broadway, he said, had succeeded in overcoming breathtaking drops in ticket sales through a "rapid, collaborative" response.

Off-Broadway theaters and other arts groups mounted their own collective responses, including the "Downtown NYC" cultural coalition and the New York Arts Recovery Fund. Anecdotally, such collaborations have become more common since 9/11, but the notion of collaboration as a way to achieve shared goals is not new. Indeed, at a February conference on arts funding, one audience member complained that he'd been hearing about the need for united action for more than 20 years. "Instead of just talking about it," he asked the room, "what are we going to do?"

Such calls for collaborative action take place at a time when there are a greater number of arts groups competing for limited funding and audiences than at any other time in the city's history. Other than attending conferences and exchanging free tickets among arts professionals, what does collaboration among highly competitive arts professionals really add up to? And, now that arts groups are asking to be taken seriously as partners in the economic and spiritual rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, what models of collaboration between arts groups and other organizations seem to work?


The greatest problem facing all arts groups is the lack of affordable space. To answer this need, the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York opened South Oxford Space, a shared office complex in Fort Greene that houses 20 small theater companies at below-market rents. A.R.T./New York is launching an even more ambitious project in the heart of the theater district, at 520 Eighth Avenue, where they will lease 32,000-square-feet of raw space, to be divided and sublet to 25 nonprofit arts groups. Some of these groups require as few as a hundred feet of administrative space--too little to interest realtors. Using their collective bargaining power, A.R.T./New York will be able to offer rents for 20 percent below market rates. Customized spaces will be built for tenants, who will also share rehearsal space, props, and office equipment.


Some of the more interesting collaborations of late have taken place between arts and non-arts groups. Begun in 2001, Creative Communities is the first-ever federal partnership between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Endowment for the Arts. The two federal agencies together contributed $3.5 million to provide arts instruction to children and teens in public housing communities. The project was born when someone at the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts observed that a public housing project in Charlotte, North Carolina, had created a successful in-house orchestra. It gained crucial support through the efforts of Gloria Cousar, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's former assistant secretary for public and Indian housing. According to Shawn Dove, the project director, "she grew up in public housing and credits arts education as the key to helping her develop into a successful adult."

The project is being implemented locally in Harlem. The Manhattanville Community Center, a public housing structure, and the Children's Art Carnival, a community school, are seven blocks apart from each other, but it has taken this federal partnership to bring them together. Through federal funding and matching grants, 60 Manhattanville residents, ages 8 to 18, receive instruction in book-making, drama and movement, painting and drawing, and other art projects from Children's Art Carnival professionals in after-school and weekend programs. Now seven months into the program, the program coordinator for the Children's Art Carnival, Vashti DuBois, calls the partnership a powerful tool for community-building. "At first we had to prove ourselves to Manhattanville," she says. "They didn't know us, we had to deliver the art, exercise good faith." She has found the process to be mutually beneficial: "Instead of us bringing the art to the housing project, it has been a process of making art together."

"Young people in public housing are experiencing powerful art-making experiences," Shawn Dove says of Creative Communities, "but resident councils are organizing, being educated, and contributing to the process too." Delores Stuart, the Project Coordinator at Manhattanville, who works for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps to arrange room for the art projects and involve adult residents in the activities. Stuart credits much of the success of the program to the time and money provided for training sessions, where housing and arts representative exchange ideas and build friendships and trust.


Patricia Cruz, the director of the Aaron Davis Hall performing arts center in Harlem, used to gaze longingly across the street from her office to the enormous--and empty--Gatehouse Building, at 135th Street and Convent Avenue. Once part of the city's water delivery system, the Gatehouse was condemned by the Department of Environmental Protection and filled-in 10 years ago. Cruz imagined that the historic Romanesque building could house some of the artists that use Aaron Davis Hall, which provides a home for the Emerson String Quartet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Opera Ebony, and Boys Choir of Harlem, among many other groups.

Cruz began to convene meetings about the abandoned building, which many felt was not only an eyesore but a danger to students from the nearby school. Cruz talked to people at various city agencies and at City College, and it soon became clear that there was great interest not only in fixing up the Gatehouse building but in revitalizing the surrounding area. At nearby P.S. 161, it turned out, the playground looked more like a prison yard; at Annunciation Park, an abandoned field house also needed attention.

Last September, at a public "visioning" session, City College architecture students, P.S. 161 teachers and parents, Abyssinian Church members, community activists, artists, and others shared their ideas about how to make use of the Gatehouse building and create neighboring green spaces for children and residents. The final plan is still taking shape--and some promised city monies have not yet come through--but the collaborative effort of what has become known as the 135th Street Gatehouse Project is already yielding tangible results. This May, with funding provided in part by the "Take the Field" organization, P.S. 161 will get new playing fields. The renovated Gatehouse will expand available performance space for Harlem-based arts groups and provide a banquet hall and community center.

One art group's effort to expand their physical space has evolved into what promises to be neighborhood revitalization. "It's fair to say that we were a catalyst for this project," Cruz says. "We brought players together to the same table. . . . I'm very, very proud of our efforts."


Now that Broadway theaters are back on their feet--sooner than anyone expected--they are returning $1 million of emergency funds to the city, under an agreement that they would give back whatever remained of the original $2.5 million in aid once the theaters had returned to profitability. The money will be redistributed to nonprofit cultural groups, which continue to suffer. Three grant-making groups, A.R.T./New York, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the American Music Center, as well as four arts education programs, Arts Connection, Center for Arts Education, Young Audiences, and Studios in the Schools, will share the funds.

A modest proposal: To follow the city's enlightened example, Broadway producers could channel $2 from each ticket sale into a non-profit arts fund--an acknowledgment that arts groups of all sizes and types are needed in New York's cultural economy (and that Broadway theaters depend on off-Broadway to create new shows and nurture talent). For the non-profits, the money could be put into cash reserves. The lack of any financial cushion has made many groups particularly vulnerable to the disruptions caused by 9/11; even modest cash reserves could go a long way toward ensuring their stability down the road.


Culture and the World Trade Center Site

It may be too soon to declare a consensus about rebuilding the World Trade Center site, but even at this early stage, it seems clear that culture will play a prominent role.

Both the private developer Larry Silverstein and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation are said to be interested in an arts center as an anchor tenant, and they will have many would-be partners, including the City Opera. More downtown museums, art galleries, and performance spaces--as well as the shops, restaurants, and bars that tend to spring up alongside them--would transform the area into the kind of vibrant, 24/7 neighborhood that is the holy grail of urban planners. During a recent Imagine New York workshop to discuss rebuilding, Julian Jackson, an art gallery director, suggested creating something along the lines of the Barbican Centre, which since it opened in 1982, has transformed London's financial district into what planners call "a destination area."

Over the past decade, according to Brooklyn College sociology professor Sharon Zukin, culture has become a favored tool for shaping urban neighborhoods and public spaces. In her 1995 book, The Cultures of Cities, Zukin describes how , with competing visions of what cities should be, city leaders have increasingly turned to cultural institutions to "arrange these visions artfully, to orchestrate and choreograph images of diversity to speak for a larger whole." Just as important, culture has come to be recognized as a major engine of economic growth. In addition to luring visitors and generating revenue, cultural institutions "establish a competitive advantage over other cities for attracting new businesses and corporate elites," Zukin writes. "Culture suggests the coherence and consistency of a brand name product."

But is the cultural umbrella broad enough to accommodate the diverse pressures and desires that are now being projected onto the World Trade Center site? Will cultural institutions be able to provide the initial shot of financial strength the area so desperately needs?

Incorporating culture into Lower Manhattan's bureaucratic and commercial district is not a new idea; more downtown museums and performance venues have opened in recent years, and free performances were offered in the World Trade Center plaza and Battery Park. "The path of Lower Manhattan has been a cultural path for the past 15 years," Sharon Zukin said in a recent interview. "Ever since the Downtown Alliance became the Business Improvement District for that area, a subtle version of the Times Square strategy for putting that area on the map has emerged."

When the real estate market sagged in the early 1990s, plans to replace Times Square's peep shows with office towers were put on hold. In the interim, public redevelopment authorities partnered with nonprofits to give the neighborhood a facelift--creating site-specific art installations, a children's theater and revamped legitimate theaters, a visitors' center, and walking tours. By the end of the decade, gleaming new buildings had begun to go up, making the area a center for entertainment and media production. This development played out familiar patterns of gentrification: a few nonprofit arts groups have been priced out of the area, and some have bemoaned the loss of Broadway's traditional blend of glamour and grime.

The overwhelmingly positive responses to the "Tribute in Light" memorial provide a glimpse of how the arts might shape the World Trade Center site. Even though the towers of light were visible for miles around the city, crowds gathered each night at their 54-searchlight source, just behind Ground Zero. A cultural center with parks, theaters, and galleries would create similar, quasi-public spaces for community gatherings for years to come. There were more than 80 stores and restaurants at the trade center, and culture might also pave the way for renewed commercial activity on what many now regard as sacred ground. "If you put a 'not-for-profit' or 'cultural' site on this ground, then you diffuse the rank commercialism that real estate development usually brings with it," Zukin argues. "Who would object to an institution with a noble cultural purpose or educational mission? Parks and art museums are the secular churches of our time."

Of course, there will be debates about what kind of art is appropriate for these "secular churches," and programmers will feel pressured to meet a broad range of expectations. It is also not clear how the area's small arts groups Ăś as well as its many small businesses -- might exist alongside a large cultural institution. In the Cultures of Cities, Zukin cautions: "Public officials and developers are more at ease discussing the image of the city as a culture capital than attending to demands for support by artists, musicians, theater owners, and museum workers. The consensus surrounding the value of the arts often breaks down over specific issues of land, labor, and capital."

Favorite Sites For Beginners:

  • NYC Department of Cultural Affairs - Official NYC site sings the Mayor's praises as champion of the arts; details a funding policy clearly weighted towards the city's largest cultural institutions; and explains services offered (e.g. Materials for the Arts, and DCA's Artist's Certification Program). Check out Percent for Art, NYC's program for art in civic spaces, where you'll find great images of work by Vito Acconci, Mel Chin, Alice Aycock and many more.
  • New York State Council on the Arts - Committed to maintaining New York State's culture, NYSCA accomplishes its goal by making grants to non-profit arts organizations. Like the DCA and NYFA (see below), NYSCA is very supportive of those programs which marry technology and the arts, as well as arts-in-education "partnerships". Much emphasis on multiculturalism, decentralization and special opportunities for "the underrepresented". Surf this site to find out where NYSCA's dollars are going and why - as well as how to apply for funding.
  • New York Foundation for the Arts - Statewide service organization, set up by NYSCA. NYFA supports thousands of artists, non-profit arts orgs and arts-in-education initiatives throughout New York, offering fiscal sponsorship, workshops, loans, fellowships, in-school artist residencies and more. Info-rich site but a bit tedious to navigate. Super links! See also Artswire, NYFA's brainchild and now the nation's premier online communications network for the arts.
  • Local Arts Councils in NYC - Check out theBronx Council on the Arts, Brooklyn Arts Council, Council on the Arts and Humanities for Staten Island, Harlem Arts Council , Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Queens Council on the Arts for the skinny on grassroots initiatives.
  • Center for Arts Education - Indy non-profit works closely with municipal agencies to administer ambitious $36 million, 5-year program aimed at restoring arts to public schools. Site details the 82 partnerships created since CAE's inception involving public schools and 135 arts groups.

Other Recommendations:

  • New York Women in Film and Television - Insider perspective on how the film industry works in NYC. Interesting series of open meetings about film and tv.
  • Third World Newsreel - Great site for searching by topic for films and video you may recall only vaguely. 30 year collection.
  • Harvestworks - Established for artists using electronic technology, but site is easy to use and should pique the curiosity of anyone interested in the arts. Calendar and good links to lots of other sites.
  • Meet the Composer - Offers listing of opportunities competitions for artists, and for the non-composer has a great series of conversations with composers.
  • Poets & Writers - A bit focused on the industry, but the Trivia question alone is worth visiting if you are a reader. Good resource page.
  • The Kitchen - This center for video, music, dance, performance and literature has real info on video. List of those it has sponsored, presented or worked with reads like a Who's Who of the video/music/performance combinations we now take for granted.
  • Theatre Development Fund - Group supports production of new play and musicals, but best known for the TKTS booth in Times Square. Advantage of the site, aside from telling you a lot more about theatre and TDF, is that you can get on their mailing list for discount seating if you are on the following "students, teachers, union members, retired person, performing arts professionals, the clergy, and members of the armed forces."

Funding And The Arts

Kate Levin, the new cultural affairs commissioner, made her first public comments at the provocatively named "Who Pays for the Arts?" conference, held at Columbia University's School of Journalism and co-sponsored by Columbia's National Arts Journalism Program and the advocacy group Alliance for the Arts. Levin spoke of the awkwardness and inflexibility of the current budget structure, in which 85 percent of the city's arts financing is given to the Cultural Institutions Group (CIGs)--major theaters, museums, libraries, zoos, gardens, and historical societies. The CIGs, which occupy city-owned buildings and receive funding for basic maintenance and utilities--the mundane expenses that private funders are often reluctant to cover--include the Met, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, Snug Harbor Cultural Center, El Museo del Barrio, and the Museum of the City of New York. The rest of the city's hundreds of cultural organizations compete for the remaining 15 percent.

Levin's willingness to consider restructuring the budget--a taboo subject within the cultural establishment--came as welcome news to some. Virginia Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, spoke of the need to nurture the smaller, sometimes experimental arts institutions. "If I was a mother with a newborn baby and a 30-year-old still living at home," she said during a panel on city funding, "I'd tell the 30-year-old to go out and get a job so I'd have money to feed the baby." Indeed, as Catherine Lanier, director of research at the Alliance for the Arts, reported, the current funding structure overwhelmingly favors larger, wealthier organizations. Institutions with budgets over 10 million get the lion's share of all city funding; in 1999, that share was over 70 percent.


While the conference touched on the moral and philosophical issues surrounding arts funding, the overriding concerns were immediate and practical. All of New York's arts organizations rely on a combination of private and public funds and earned income. An Alliance for the Arts report revealed that, even during the flush years of the 1990s, smaller organizations suffered as a result of rising costs and reduced public and private funding. Some fear that a survival-of-the-fittest model is emerging, whereby only those organizations large enough to support endowments and cash reserves will be able to weather hard times.

The report also revealed that larger organizations have become increasingly dependent on earned income--welcome news to those who consider for-profit ventures to be signs of ingenuity and strength. Earned income in 1980 on average made up just 39 percent of arts organizations' revenue; in 1999, money from tickets, admissions, rentals, gift shops, and other activities generated 50.9 percent of all revenue. The downside of this growth, however, is that an institution like the Guggenheim is dramatically affected by the drop in tourism (and the accompanying drop in ticket and gift shop sales).


The bottom line is that the this country's leaders have never been as generous to artists as, say, Elizabeth I during the English Renaissance. On a panel about city funding, the historian Kenneth Jackson argued that, if money is the best measure of what our society values, baseball and cars come out way ahead of the arts. Robert Lynch, the head of the research organization Americans for the Arts, pointed out that subsidizing artists goes against the grain of America's spirit of entrepreneurialism and our Puritan roots.

But many in New York's arts community recall brighter days. Robert Marx, vice president of The Fan Fox & Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, harkened back to 1970, when the New York Shakespeare Festival got $700,000 from the city and the state; today they get a pittance--$60,000--to present free Shakespeare in the park.

Funds to cultural groups do not comprise a major part of the city's gargantuan budget--only a fraction of one percent. "Is it enough," Patricia Cruz, executive director of Aaron Davis Hall, asked, "for a city that prides itself on being a cultural capital?" It follows that Bloomberg's funding cuts to cultural groups do not make up a lot of money, except to the arts organizations themselves, of course.


A refrain heard throughout the conference was that the arts community needs to become a political force. Jonathan Katz, president of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, advocated presenting arts funding as a vehicle for politicians to achieve their own goals. Since the arts already get played off against social services when budgets are created, it makes sense to argue that the arts themselves have social value--to educate youth or strengthen communities, for example. Kate Levin put it succinctly: "I think the dialogue has been hamstrung in the past by a tendency to be anecdotal, to talk about your conversion experience and how arts changed your life," she said. "But that doesn't really cut it when you have to numerically line up budget items."

Martha Hostetter writes for American Theatre magazine.

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