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April 29th, 2003

State of the Arts

by Paul Nagle

A Municiple Arts Policy For The Future

A confluence of initiatives and circumstances make this one of the most exciting times in history for the Arts in New York City. Thanks to arts service organization leaders like Ted Berger (New York Foundation for the Arts); Randy Borsheidt (Alliance for the Arts); Kinshasha Holman Conwill (The Blueprint Project); Ginny Louloudis (ART/New York); Norma Munn (New York City Arts Coalition), Gary Steur (Arts & Business Council) and Liz Thompson (Lower Manhattan Cultural Council), the arts sector in NYC has never been so well organized and coordinated. Because of the terror attacks of 9/11, we are now faced with the task of rebuilding and revitalizing downtown. Happily, and largely because of their work, it has become conventional wisdom that the arts will be a major engine for the new downtown economy. Times have changed.

In light of these new developments, the office I work for, that of Council Member Alan Gerson, has called upon all decision-makers to seize this moment, this chance, to be bold. As citizens living in the arts capital of the world, we have an unprecedented opportunity to rethink and reshape the cultural landscape of New York City. The way we build and use the arts to revitalize the downtown area, will shape and influence our artistic output for generations to come. What we do with and for the arts below 14th Street will affect the entire ecology of artists and arts organizations throughout the five boroughs and the tri-state area. Let us take the time together to rebuild the arts downtown with new and forward-thinking initiatives that will stabilize the entire sector city-wide, and create long-term sustainability for our institutions. We need to plan this.

We need a MAP (Municipal Arts Policy). Even though New York City and state are at the top of the list in per capita arts spending, we still lack infrastructure. We lack land use codification to buffer the arts from market forces. We expect employees of the sector to work for little or nothing. Funding for operations is almost non-existent. Organizations spend years creating capital campaigns, fixing buildings they don’t own. The heroic staff at the Department of Cultural Affairs carries the load year after year, good people being eaten alive by attrition while trying to do an undoable task.

Will downtown be yet one more example where we use the arts to rebuild only to eventually drive the arts out by the high cost of the revitalization they’ve helped to create? We need a MAP.

We already have a Blueprint, and thoughtful comprehensive proposals for bolstering the sector as a business sector. We have a living library of useful data. Our office has convened a consortium of individuals and organizations called the Arts Advisors to the Select Committee (AASC). They are studying urban models of successful cultural districts from around the country. They are collecting ordinances and pieces of legislation, organizational models of civic involvement, and charters and by-laws from innovative public/private partnerships. We should not assume that we must use the cultural models of our past. We must seriously entertain the possibility of innovation.

All of this implies a cohesive, concerted and deliberate effort. It requires an open dialogue among existing downtown artists and organizations and those who would like to start-up or relocate downtown. It requires surveys of existing and new spaces, and existing and new needs. It demands that we look together for possible areas of cooperation, synergy and resource sharing. It means that we face up to the thorny issues of long-term sustainability and better business practices BEFORE WE BUILD. This MAP must show us how to build magnificent new amenities while assuring the creation of affordable spaces for smaller groups. It means government must make up its mind to provide real growth incentives to this sector. And as counter-intuitive as it might seem to the entrepreneurial New York gestalt, it’s going to require some urban planning. We need a MAP so that we can navigate our future instead of merely surviving crisis in perpetuity. Darwin shows us that in this highly competitive artistic environment, many that try will fail. But that is not a reason not to reach out to the survivors, to discuss how we may collectively improve our lot. It is not hopeless.

History will record all of it. Shall we drift through this process, structuring deals by the status quo, laying the foundation for future generations of instability and unbroken cycles of crisis management? No. We must seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and create a cohesive municipal arts policy, unique to this city, and a model for the future. It is up to us to create the MAP toward a fiscally enlightened arts sector, that understands its own place and value in a mixed economy and is willing to advocate strongly for incentives commensurate with its ability to stimulate and sustain New York City’s growth and redevelopment.

-Paul Nagle

(Paul Nagle is a prominent NYC art activist and executive member of councilman alan gerson’s AASC; the advisory committee on the arts for the city council)

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