New York City spends more on arts and culture than any other city in the United States—and more than any single state. The budget of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs exceeds that of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The city has been funding the arts since the 19th century, but until now City Hall has never embarked on a comprehensive review of where all that money goes and what it does.
The result of that effort is a 180-page report released today called “CREATENYC: A Cultural Plan for All New Yorkers,” which aims to reorient the city’s cultural life toward neglected corners of the five boroughs by bringing the arts to previously ignored neighborhoods and pushing some of the jewels in the city’s cultural crown to make a greater effort towards getting residents of those neighborhoods through their doors.
“We are clear: there are no cultural deserts in New York City,” Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, said in an interview. “There are arts organizations and artists in every part of the city, but there are not necessarily well-resourced artists and arts organizations in every part of the city. There are parts of the city and communities that remain underserved.”
The plan calls for the agency to begin immediately increasing its support for arts organizations in those neighborhoods, including those on city-owned property, which already receive significant funding from the city in exchange for having a free or reduced-cost admissions policy. Known as the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG), these city-affiliated museums include the Met and the Museum of Natural History, but also Wave Hill in the Bronx, the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, El Museo del Barrio, and other institutions farther from the city’s core.
The new plan advocates for translations services for arts organizations, new funding to support cultural workers with disabilities, and a professional development program aiming to help people of color ascend the ranks of leadership at the city’s museums and art spaces. Under the plan, the city would also help arts organizations lower their carbon footprint and increase direct support to artists, particularly those working with and in historically disenfranchised communities. In addition, at a press conference today unveiling the plan, officials said that they would continue to survey organizations on the diversity of their boards and staffs, with results potentially influencing funding decisions.
“We need to look at culture in terms of all the benefits that New Yorkers receive from being residents of this really great city,” said Arnold Lehman, a former head of the Brooklyn Museum and a member of the advisory committee that authored the report. “The challenge is that not everyone shares equally in it, in part because some people are not interested, but mostly because over many, many decades a kind of elitism has come to be associated with culture and it hasn’t had an all-city approach.”
City officials embarked on a massive outreach effort to put the cultural plan together, meeting by their own account with almost 200,000 New Yorkers in workshops across the five boroughs over the course of the past year. But they did so only at the prodding of the City Council, which passed a bill two years ago mandating that New York follow cities like Chicago, Denver, and Houston in systematically plotting its cultural strategy.
City Hall initially resisted the effort.
“Some folks would argue that in a city as rich as ours is in cultural attractions, and so full of artists, why do you need to do a cultural plan?” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who sponsored the legislation. “And if we have a plan, then we have to follow through on that plan and actually do stuff, and some folks don’t want to be tied down to such a firm commitment.”
But, Van Bramer added, “there are many people in the city of New York who for whatever reason felt that all of those attractions and all of those institutions weren’t for them, or they have a hesitation about accessing them, or inability to go to them. We have an obligation to tear down those barriers and find out where the gaps and inequities were. We are doing a lot. We are the cultural capital of the world. It’s about being self-reflective and acknowledging that we are doing it as well as we want to.”
Officials were unwilling to put a price tag on how much all of these initiatives will cost. The city already spends half a billion dollars a year on culture when the DCA’s budget ($188.1 million for fiscal year 2018), capital costs, and education programs are counted, according to Van Bramer. Finkelpearl said that the initiative to green the city’s arts institutions would cost $25 million, and that the effort to increase access for the disabled would cost around $10 million, with an additional $1 million being sent to CIG institutions that increase access for disenfranchised communities. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council have also been upping their funding for the DCA in recent years.
“We allocated significant funding already, but clearly the report is challenging us to do even more, and I anticipate and welcome that,” Van Bramer said.
Despite those funding increases, many in the art world do not see New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a champion of the arts in the way that his predecessor, Mike Bloomberg, was. Bloomberg is a collector of Old Masters, and helped bring to the city major public projects like Olafur Eliasson’s The New York City Waterfalls (2008), Paul Ramirez Jonas’s Key to the City (2010), and most famously, The Gates (1979–2005) of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Asked what would be the paradigmatic de Blasio cultural initiative on that scale, Finkelpearl said the IDNYC program, which created a municipal identification card for all city residents who wanted one, regardless of citizenship status, and permitted holders free membership at several city arts institutions.
There had been concern among officials affiliated with some of the city’s major institutions that the cultural plan would mean less funding for them. The Met, for instance, is already dealing with a budget shortfall and earlier this year drafted a plan to institute a mandatory admission fee for visitors from outside New York State, a proposal that the city is currently considering. But funding for such institutions will hold steady for now, according to the plan released today.
As the city embarked on its effort to put the plan together, it also faced criticism from some who feared that it would not do enough to address the affordability crisis that artists face in a city of rising rents and disappearing studio, rehearsal, and performance spaces. “The People’s Cultural Plan,” an alternative put forward by a trio of artists earlier this summer, pointed out that real-estate companies with ties to the de Blasio administration were contracted to work on blueprint. The PCP, as it is known, calls for fair wages for artists, commercial rent control, and community land trusts for artist housing.
Artists, said Jenny Dubnau, who is one of the authors of the alternative plan, need to reckon with how they are often used by real-estate interests to increase gentrification, as well as the overall expense of working in the city.
“Our biggest issue is with what the plan doesn’t do,” said Dubnau, “It doesn’t make recommendations to address gentrification and displacement, which is affecting poor communities and communities of color and harshly affecting artists and art organization. We need to speak out against the ways that the branding of the arts is being used to raise property values in poor neighborhoods.”
The Center for an Urban Future, a think tank, has issued two reports in the past decade detailing the difficulties New York has in providing a welcoming home for artists and arts organizations. However, a recent CUF study noted that there are more artists in New York than there were a decade ago, proof that the long-rumored exodus of city artists to midsize cities eager to poach them has not actually occurred. At least not yet.
“We believe there are cracks,” Finkelpearl said. “And if enough people are talking about how the city is too expensive to be an artist in, then there will be a breaking point.”
“But it is not happening,” he added. “Artists are still moving here.”