Let’s Fight for Arts Funding: Tom Finkelpearl on the Impact of the NEA, NEH, and Other Supporters of Culture on New York City


Tom Finkelpearl.


In the federal executive branch’s budget proposal released March 16, the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and Humanities (NEH) as well as the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) are marked to be completely eliminated. Together last year, they granted $29.5 million to New York City. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, also under threat, provided another $28.4 million for public media programming in the five boroughs. Losing these essential institutions would be devastating for hundreds of New York City cultural organizations. The proposal is also shortsighted at the national level.

After the federal government, New York City is the next-largest public funder of culture in the nation. Far from being under threat, our Department of Cultural Affairs expense budget has increased under each of our last three mayors. In inflation-adjusted dollars, Cultural Affairs averaged $162.3 million during Rudolph Giuliani’s tenure, $170.4 million with Michael Bloomberg, and $171.2 million under Bill de Blasio. Sure, there was a rocky moment with Mayor Giuliani regarding an exhibition his administration found offensive, but even then there was no public discussion of abolishing the agency. Under conservative, moderate, and progressive mayors, and working with a series of pro-culture City Councils, this funding has remained the bedrock of our budget.

One good reason for this is that New Yorkers and our elected officials clearly see the value of investment in culture. On an individual level, people point to the transformative experiences that can bring joy and enlightenment while building empathy. Museums connect us to history. Gardens and zoos connect us to nature. Live performance connects audiences with each other and the imaginations of the artists, performers, and authors involved. Literature can draw us into experiences that transcend boundaries of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and disability.

For more data-driven policy makers, there is a strong economic argument for cultural investment. It’s true: culture drives regional and international tourism, which creates jobs. Cultural organizations help make New York unique by providing services and programming that are impossible to outsource. And the ripple effects—of dollars spent directly by cultural organizations as well as by their patrons at hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses—magnify these benefits, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs in New York alone. So, culture has personal and economic value. It functions on an individual and city-wide level.

Last week a new study was released that shows how culture functions on a neighborhood level. The report by the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania, led by Mark Stern and Susan Seifert, is titled “Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City.” Funded by the New York Community Trust’s Cultural Agenda Fund and The Surdna Foundation, it is based on reams of data from several city agencies, the U.S. Census Bureau, and other sources. Their analysis says that the abundance of cultural assets in neighborhoods correlates with improved outcomes for crime, education, and health. One intriguing finding is that the improvements are more pronounced in lower- and moderate-income communities. That is, high rates of cultural assets in well-off neighborhoods do correlate with improved social indicators. But in the lower income communities there is greater benefit. This research looks at community ecologies, interlocking multiple measures of well-being. Cultural participation predicts lower rates of serious crime, lower rates of child abuse and neglect, and better results in public schools. Culture is good for the spirit and good for the city as a whole. Now we have a study that supports the idea that culture is an integral ingredient of a thriving neighborhood.

This year, New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs has been engaged in our first-ever cultural plan. We have had nearly 200 public meetings across all five boroughs and have spoken to thousands of New Yorkers from all walks of life. Everywhere, we have witnessed the creative energy of the city. Not once did I hear that our agency should be abolished. The NEA, NEH, IMLS, and CPB are crucial to New York organizations. They often provide early funding for projects and the “seal of approval” that can leverage a lot of additional support. But these agencies are perhaps even more important in parts of the U.S. with less robust local cultural funding. Across red, blue and purple America, these agencies are invaluable partners. Culture benefits Americans in ways that are quantifiable and in others that are hard to measure. New York City’s government sees the multidimensional value of investing in culture. Apparently the current administration in Washington, D.C., does not. Anyone who sees the value of the arts and culture needs to fight for the restoration of these agencies. We have six months. Let’s start now.

Tom Finkelpearl is Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

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