Gotham Gazette

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Arts Funding 101

When Lynn Parkerson, long-time dancer and choreographer, got married and moved from Manhattan to her husband’s home in Brooklyn Heights, she took a look around and said to herself, “why isn’t there a ballet company in Brooklyn?” Brooklyn Ballet was born.

As anybody in the arts will tell you, though, inspiration, talent, drive and even a ready-made audience are not enough. You need funding. Brooklyn Ballet, founded in 2002 and performing for free in Brooklyn schools and public parks, now has a budget of $60,000; the money has to come from somewhere.

That is why Parkerson was sitting with some 75 other heads of non-profit arts organizations at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, attending the last of eight seminars the agency gave in all five boroughs on how to apply to it for funds. The arts administrators and artistic directors had just five days before the July 18th deadline for applications.

“For those of you who have never applied before,” Assistant Cultural Commissioner Kathleen Hughes was saying, “give a lot of thought as to whether this is the right time.”

Parkerson, who in fact had never applied before, wasn’t sure it was the right time. “I’d have to pay somebody $500 just to fill out this application,” she said privately, holding up a booklet of about 25 pages. “I don’t have any staff, I don’t have an office, there are so many things that have to get done in the course of a day – I have to go uptown to audition a dancer this afternoon. Doing the programming is a full-time job. Fundraising is a second full-time job.”

The city’s new $50.2 billion budget, which the mayor and the City Council passed on June 30th, and which officially took effect on July 1, includes some $130 million for the Department of Cultural Affairs to hand out to hundreds of non-profit arts groups this fiscal year. The Department of Cultural Affairs gives more money for the arts, officials there say, than any other government agency in the United States, including the National Endowment for the Arts.

The way they do it, however, doesn’t have everybody cheering. “It's inequitable, it's irrational, it doesn't satisfy anybody,” says Norma Munn, who has been following the city’s arts budget since she helped found the New York City Arts Coalition two decades ago. “The bulk of the organizations that get the money use it extremely well,” Munn adds. “But as a city policy, the way it’s distributed just doesn’t make much sense.”


“Let me give you a quick Arts Funding 101,” Assistant Commissioner Hughes was saying in the seminar.

“Last year, the agency’s budget was about $120 million, give or take,” she said. “Of that, about $100 million went to 34 organizations.”

1. These 34 are called the Cultural Institutions Group, or CIGs, and range from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which will get more than $22 million in the newly adopted budget, and the American Museum of Natural History, which will get about $17 million, to the Studio Museum in Harlem ($834,000) and the Staten Island Historical Society ($752,000).

The 34 CIGs are at the top of the heap in arts funding in New York City – guaranteed at least 80 percent of the department’s funding year after year.

2. The next level down are 175 arts organizations that are listed by name in the budget (this is called a “line-item” because year after year these same organizations get their own line in the budget). The Bronx Opera Company is slated to receive about $30,000 this year, although it is listed in the executive budget (in pdf format), as the Bronx Opera Society. (“We’ve never been the Bronx Opera Society, and never will be,” says artistic director Michael Spierman.) Among the other organizations with a line are the New Museum (which was promised $22,000 in the executive budget), the Tibetan Museum ($38,000), and the New York School for Circus Arts (almost $115,000). (Final figures for the line-items were not yet available in mid-July.)

While the organizations in this category receive less funding on average than those in the Cultural Institutions Group, there are some individual exceptions any given year. The Police Museum, for example, was listed in the executive budget this year at almost $800,000 (and last year got more than $900,000).

3. Below the line-item groups are those organizations chosen just for this year (with no guarantee of future funding) by an individual member of the City Council or a “council delegation” (meaning all the council members from a particular borough). These are called “member items”, and about 200 groups will get this money in any given year. (The list of these for this year will be available later this summer, officials say.)

Together, the arts organizations in these two categories – the “line items” and the “member items” – get about 90 percent of whatever funding is left after the Cultural Institutions Group. Last year, some 400 groups split about $18 million.

4. The money that remains is offered as part of something called the Cultural Development Fund. It is the only pool of money that the Department of Cultural Affairs awards competitively. The applications are reviewed by one of five peer panels (there is one for each borough), “made up of people like you,” Assistant Commissioner Hughes said at the seminar.

Last year, 550 groups applied to the Cultural Development Fund; 380 of them received a grant of at least $3,000 and at most $15,000. Together these 380 split about $1.8 million – less money than the Brooklyn Children’s Museum (a “CIG”) got all by itself.

It might seem like relatively little money, and the requirements for receiving it are rigorous and complicated (most of the two-and-a-half hour seminar was taken up with explaining how to fill out the application form). But to emerging arts groups, the money -- and the validation that comes with it ("It's the Goodhousekeeping Seal of Approval for the arts," Hughes jokes) -- couldn't be more important. "Every dollar makes a difference," said Monica Harte of The Remarkable Theater Brigade, which produces original musicals for an audience of special-needs children and is applying this year for the first time to the Cultural Development Fund (their first attempt at any government grant). “Three thousand dollars is nearly 14 percent of the budget for our next project -- substantial for us, and crucial to its success.”


To illustrate what’s wrong with this system, Norma Munn likes to tell the tale of the two Mets: While the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a “CIG”) is getting $22 million this year, the Metropolitan Opera (a “line item”) is slotted for only $134,000.

Those New Yorkers who love paintings more than opera could probably put together a case that the Met Museum deserves over 150 times more city funding than the Met Opera. But Munn’s point is that the criteria for this disparity are not spelled out. It cannot be the size of their respective budgets -- "the Metropolitan Opera actually has a budget that's a little bit larger than the Met Museum" -- and it is not artistic merit: Both are highly regarded.

If the reason for the difference is popularity, then why has the Department of Cultural Affairs given the Police Museum some seven times more funding over the past two years than it has given the New York Philharmonic, and why was the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, which draws an audience of about 8,000 theatergoers a week, being promised about $17,000 in the executive budget, while the Bronx County Historical Society, which has an attendance of about 8,000 for the entire year, is getting more than $200,000? “It’s not as if the Vivian Beaumont doesn’t need the money,” Munn says. “It most certainly does.”

One reason the Bronx Historical Society gets more money is because it is one of the 34 CIGs.

Being a CIG certainly helps an organization's finances. But what determines whether a non-profit group gets to be a CIG? The arrangement might make sense if the 34 members of the Cultural Institutions Group were the biggest or most important or the most obviously worthy from an artistic point of view – or even if there were some other clear-cut criteria for their selection, such as most needy. But how do you explain the inclusion in the Cultural Institutions Group, for example, of the Bronx Historical Society and the Staten Island Historical Society, but the exclusion of the Queens Historical Society, the Brooklyn Historical Society and the New-York Historical Society? How to explain the inclusion of the Queens Museum of Art and the Museum of the Moving Image, but the exclusion of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney?

“It’s a lesson in politics” is how Norma Munn explains it. “The Bronx Historical Society is a CIG and the Queens Historical Society is not, because somebody 25 years ago was smart enough in the Bronx to lobby, and somebody in Queens was not.”

The official explanation is that the 34 members of the Cultural Institutions Group are “owned by the city” (meaning the city legally owns the buildings and the property underneath them) -- though, actually, one of them (the Studio Museum in Harlem) isn’t. The bulk of the money from the city for the CIGs is for “operating and energy support” (heat and light and building maintenance costs) which private donors typically find insufficiently sexy to fund. In exchange, according to Janet Schneider, the executive director of the Cultural Institutions Group, the 34 CIGs have “detailed operating agreements” with the city that require various obligations (different for each institution) that non-CIGs don’t have. “These may entail providing free admission to NYC school children, free or pay-what-you-wish admission, and other free services,” she says.

Critics see the 34 CIGs as largely governed identically to the other major non-profit institutions in New York -- decisions made by independent boards of directors; revenue produced by admission charges or ticket prices, corporate sponsorships, individual memberships and donations; etc. -- and therefore question what "owned by the city" really means.

The rationale for much of the funding for the arts in general, they say, is hidden in history, some of it the result of long-ago horse-trading by long-dead borough-based public officials in a now-defunct city institution (the Board of Estimate).

“The system was built up, ad hoc, over decades,” says Norma Munn, who has been railing for years about it on behalf of her coalition, which represents more than 200 non-profit arts organizations in the city. (See her Funds for the Arts Go Up, But Remain Unfair written in 2000.)

Schneider of the Cultural Institutions Group sees it differently, at least as it relates to the CIGs. The relationship between New York City and the cultural institutions it owns dates back to the 1870s, she points out, a “public/private partnership model” that was needed to create such undisputed treasures as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Over the years, she says, the system “has responded to changing needs and changing times...That the city has not abrogated its commitment to the institutions over a period of 130 years is a further testimony to the success of this relationship as arts policy."

Shortly after Kate Levin became the commissioner of Cultural Affairs in 2002, she acknowledged the flaws in the arts budget process at a symposium, co-sponsored by the Alliance for the Arts, an advocacy and research organization.

While she emphasized she was in no way “devaluing the enormous contributions” made by the members of the Cultural Institutions Group, she said “it’s extremely awkward to have a cultural funder that has so little flexibility in terms of responding to emerging needs, emerging institutions, emerging aesthetic trends, etc.”

As for the “line-item” organizations – again with a caveat about the worthiness of many institutions – she said “I was shocked to find that there’s a sizable portion of line-itemed organizations that have gone out of business, and yet their funds appear year after year, and they can’t really be reallocated.”

Since then, Commissioner Levin says now through a spokeswoman, she has been able to reallocate the money from the defunct groups (which were not as numerous as she had thought), and become more responsive to a wide range of cultural organizations especially through the capital budget, which funds major projects such as building renovations and the purchase of vehicles. The new capital budget (in pdf format) will provide more than $800 million over the next four years to help fund such projects for 161 of the city’s cultural organizations, up from 84 in 2002. (Examples: $29 million for Lincoln Center, $1.6 million for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, $87,000 for the Louis Armstrong House, $25,000 for P.S. 122 Theater in the Bronx.) "The agency is always looking at ways to make money more available to groups, and to respond to emerging needs."

If the expense budget remains far less flexible, even Norma Munn concedes that it would be difficult to change it. “To fix the system would require either taking money away from institutions that are getting it now, which would be politically unfeasible,” Munn says, “or increasing the total amount of money available for the arts, which the mayor is not likely to do.”


The mayor has increased the total amount of money available for the arts – from his own pocket. For the fourth year in a row, he has given an “anonymous” gift (reported in every local newspaper) to the Carnegie Foundation of New York – the accumulative amount is $55 million -- to distribute grants to a list of hundreds of groups in the five boroughs, including about 230 arts and cultural institutions.

As for the total amount of money available for the arts from the city government that he heads, the adopted budget -- as predicted(see section entitled "The Budget Ballet"), and despite the huzzahs over City Council-backed "restorations" -- includes about one quarter of one percent for the arts, just about the same percentage as ten years ago under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

In a city that is the capital of culture – and the capital of capital -- money for the arts does not just come from the government, as officials at the Department of Cultural Affairs are the first to point out.

"Who Pays For The Arts?", a study in 2001 by the Alliance for the Arts of 575 organizations that applied for funding from the Department of Cultural Affairs, found that on average, their revenue sources were

  • 51 percent from earned income, such as ticket sales (this went down to 39 percent on average for the smallest institutions, those with budgets under $100,000)
  • 38 percent from private sources (such as contributions from individuals, corporations and foundation grants).
  • 11 percent from government (this went up to almost 28 percent on average for the smallest arts groups).

A reason for the relatively small percentage of revenue from government grants, the report observes, is simply that the government has been cutting back -- though, the report concludes, that money is not being replaced (as was the hope and the prediction) by an increase in corporate donations.

“Government” does not mean just the Department of Cultural Affairs. Funds for the arts are available from federal agencies (National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, etc.), state agencies ( the New York State Council on the Arts, New York State Natural Heritage Trust, New York State Department of Education, etc.), and other city agencies, such as the Department of Youth and Community Development and the Department of Education. While the Department of Cultural Affairs will only fund arts organizations that have been around for at least two years, there are five borough arts councils that are open to groups with less of a track record.

But the most helpful advice (and most revealing comment?) during the funding seminar at the Department of Cultural Affairs may have come when the assistant commissioner was explaining that this year’s cultural budget includes $8 million of “member items” – picked by individual members of the City Council.

“The council members have the ability to fund your organization -– if they know of your organization,” she told the group, as she handed out a contact list of the council. “One of the things you need to do is reach out to those council members.”

That is one of the first things Lynn Parkerson did, after she put together a board of directors and got non-profit status for Brooklyn Ballet. On the recommendation of a fundraising consultant, she was able to wrangle some of her first funding from the council.

She did this by meeting with the council member from her district, David Yassky, who invited her to be one of the many beseeching groups to give a five-minute presentation at the next meeting of the Brooklyn delegation. This is where she won over Lew Fidler, who arranged funding (not through Cultural Affairs but a different agency) so that she could offer a ballet program in six schools in his district.

What won him over?

“I brought two dancers along, and we gave a real performance,” Lynn Parkerson said. She discovered early, then, how much arts funding in New York depends on a political dance.


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