Gotham Gazette

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Funds for the Arts Go Up, but Remain Unfair

After ten years, most of which were spent fighting Rudy Giuliani's cuts, the cultural groups of the city finally received a real increase in the new budget -- courtesy of the City Council, which again rejected the Mayor's cuts, and then provided an additional $7 million to the Department of Cultural Affairs. The Council also allocated an extra $7.2 million directly to 200 of its favorite cultural groups, which is more money in "add-ons," as they are called, than ever before.

Total city funding for the cultural community is at a record high of over $122 million, more than twice as much as the state provides. This is great news.

There is just one problem. The list of cultural groups receiving funds has barely changed since the end of the Board of Estimate, in 1989. This is startling. Council members and the current Mayor pride themselves on having improved things since they took power. In the cultural community those changes are not as deep nor as substantive as they should or could be.

Can anyone explain why the current budget provides Jazzmobile, a group serving a wide range of the city's neighborhoods for decades, with $64,000, yet Jazz at Lincoln Center gets a total of $701,000? How does one make sense out of the Intrepid, the battleship museum in the Hudson River, receiving $308,000, compared to the West Indian Day Parade, which gets only $29,000, though it is one of the most outstanding and best-attended parades in the city? All of these are worthy groups, but the disparity in funding is not rational.

When elected officials make the decisions about cultural funding on a group-by-group basis, they fund those groups knowledgeable enough to get in touch with them, or the groups whose board members they know, but they don't fund artistic excellence or new trends, except by accident. City Council members fund groups serving their particular districts, but they have limited ways of knowing the quality of what they are supporting. The cultural groups they give money to may be less worthwhile than ones that simply lack the political savvy to woo elected officials.

This process is not some kind of evil conspiracy. It is the way government gives out the goodies when it does not establish a process that first evaluates and then funds, or when some aspect of government is deliberately designed to avoid the evaluation process. That was the Board of Estimate process in a nutshell.

Neither of the two Mayors since the Board of Estimate days has really been inclined to examine the process of cultural funding. Giuliani's $5 million Challenge Initiative, in which the city provides grants to groups but requires matching funds from the private sector, does not qualify as a serious attempt to address the lack of a comprehensive, rational policy and process for funding cultural groups.

So, we remain a city with a lot of money going to the cultural groups via a jerry-rigged system of ad hoc decisions mostly made ten years ago, and adjusted since in small ways by City Council members struggling to make sense of what they inherited. We can do better.

We must look at what other cities and states do, and conduct a methodical assessment of what our cultural community needs.

We must recognize that the arts and culture of New York are critical to the city's economy. There needs to be a debate about economic development IN the arts, not about cultural tourism. The city needs to support the new and expanded role of community-based cultural groups. There needs to be an economic investment model that puts serious money into the arts, instead of the nickel-and-dime approach currently in vogue. That is not a partnership. That is an investment process doomed to keep cultural groups on the dole and barely surviving. And New York, which proclaims itself the cultural capital of the world, must find ways to support those who create the art -- individual artists!

Norma Munn is the chairwoman of the New York City Arts Coalition, a citywide advocacy group. She is also president of the Artists Community Federal Credit Union, and is a former chairwoman of The City Club of New York.

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