Why We Can’t Abandon Our Efforts to Revitalize NYC Culture

Since 2015 I have served on the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for New York City’s first cultural plan, CreateNYC — a set of recommendations and action plans, based on a year and a half of community outreach conducted by the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) to measure and articulate the value of the arts and needs of participants in an increasingly unequal and unsustainable city.

Despite the mix of embrace and criticism it has received — including the productive pressure of the People’s Cultural Plan, an alternate platform developed independent of city agencies — CreateNYC and its stewards have earnestly produced a plan that articulates a network of core inequities in our city and tracks needs that, once met, would contribute to a more equal, diverse, accessible, and sustainable city for artists and arts institutions. Expressed in 2017 as a static 180-page document, a 2019 update is now available as a web-based action plan that tracks line-item progress, gathers relevant links, and translates broad ideas into their bureaucratic terms and their cross-departmental entanglements. In short, CreateNYC has done the work of organizing community feedback and offering measurables that can be used to track progress and set coordinated goals.

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From my perspective, this plan’s accomplishments and potential have largely been ignored by the cultural community as either too small, too slow, or too detailed to be of use for the social media inflected urgency that informs our movements. The plan has also been ignored by the City Council and in many ways the DCLA itself. There is still no clear definition from the DCLA identifying which actions are a product of the plan and which are not. In many ways the plan is only half-formed; relying on aggregated information and recommendations and lacking the collaboration and willingness from constituents and elected officials to turn data into meaningful policy.

Constituents’ core needs do not require more study. Those needs, as consistently relayed in outreach, include guaranteed baseline funding for small and mid-size institutions, programs to generate and sustain affordable space in all boroughs, and the empowerment of communities paired with an undoing of the centralized power of developers. We already know. Continuing to investigate these issues only defers material solutions.

As our city begins its long recovery from COVID-19, compounded by existing inequities, the information collected within CreateNYC should not be abandoned, but activated and engaged by the cultural community. We must elevate our knowledge, not only of what to demand, but of strategies for how demands can be addressed by the government, and how those strategies can be modulated over the course of the process — even when the process is unclear.

In this spirit, I offer the following observations and recommendations to the arts community and its advocates: 

1. Are we targeting the right people?

Predominantly relegated to distributing and managing budgets allocated by the City Council, the DCLA is frequently the wrong department for the conversations it hosts. For example, any demands regarding teaching artists in the public school system is mute without the Department of Education being involved. CreateNYC names the departmental collaborations necessary for each of its recommendations. This mapping is an asset in understanding a byzantine structure. Press for cross-department meetings.

Further, issues such as rent regulation and eviction protection are regulated at the state level, not in the City Council. Understanding where to deliver demands and which government body to engage will help in modulating strategy. The Department of Cultural Affairs should provide transparent information and guidance to arts advocates on these nuances.

2. Can we translate broad demands into the language of incremental achievements?

Long term goals which are too abstract are also easy to ignore. Public officials and their departments are run by relatively short-term interests which can be measured and accomplished in an election cycle. If the demand is “affordable space for artists,” be prepared to translate this into short-term goals which a bureaucracy can understand: “100 new subsidized units a year equally split across all boroughs” produces more leverage and accountability than a general statement.

Kenneth Pietrobono, image of the New York Botanical Garden (2021) 

3. Are we confusing the capacity of private dollars with our expectation of public dollars?

Something which has given me pause is the prevalence of private wealth stepping in to fund public issues, specifically in the arts. San Francisco’s “Guaranteed Income Pilot” and its recent expansion to 18 months of support for 180 artists, while wonderful, has been privately funded by Twitter and Square CEO, Jack Dorsey. A parallel guaranteed income pilot program launching in New York is funded by the private wealth of the Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

These programs, frequently referred to as “universal basic income for artists,” are nowhere near the scale of “UBI” which would require corporations like Twitter and owners of private wealth to pay their full tax obligations for government-implemented, subsistence-level payments to all qualifying people, regardless of profession. Are we adding to the weakening of government regulation by accepting the speed, abundance, and flexibility of private dollars for solutions?

4. Fight for the rights of all, not just artists.

Fighting for programs that solely benefit artists is a dangerous path. Many of the most common demands — “housing for artists,” “wages for artists,” “health care for artists” — are simply not possible at the government level, even if they were achieved in previous decades. Government agencies are very limited in their ability to define and regulate the class of “artist” and are doubly leery of assigning special privileges to certain classes of labor above others for fear of being accused of discrimination and violation of equal rights.

These needs should be fought for all people and not just artists. It is best to join existing movements and make sure artists’ needs are included as opposed to demanding artist-centered programs which only private wealth can offer.

It is for these reasons that I end my time with CreateNYC advocating for a continued and deepened engagement with civic processes rather than less engagement. Transformative change will be full of negotiations, incremental achievements, and concessions that will define how demands are actualized through each level of government. We should engage and not abandon what has been started.

Click through these links for more details about the Citizens’ Advisory Committee that will disband this year, including their 2019 CreateNYC progress letter to DCLA.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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