So far this year I’ve been to two different events that highlight different but related approaches to political organizing among artists here in New York. Just to clarify what I mean by organizing — literally bringing individual artists together into a larger community that can advocate for and create political change around some of the more pressing issues facing independent artists in the city (unstable housing, irregular employment, healthcare, etc), issues which many other groups in the city also face.
The first event happened back in early January and was a panel put together by the Arts & Labor working group of Occupy Wall Street. It was one of many different events the group has organized since their founding in 2011, most of which focus on the visual arts. This event was part of a two-event strategy session aimed at moving towards creating a working plan for what the group hoped to achieve. For this event in particular, they brought together representatives from the Domestic Workers United, the Taxi Workers Alliance, the union that was part of the Sotheby’s Art Handlers struggle (Teamsters Local 814), and the Alliance for a Greater New York (an organization that focuses on building coalitions across labor and social justice organizations).
The point of the session was to learn how these groups have managed to organize, make political gains, and build coalitions with other groups, despite the fact that they often are bringing together workers who fall far outside of existing labor laws because their work is often irregular, freelance, or for multiple employers, and/or under conditions where they do not have easy and regular access to their colleagues. The phrase “precarious workers” came up a few times as a way of describing many of the kinds of workers discussed at the meeting.
Many things came out of the meeting — but it was in listening to the stories of the taxi drivers and the domestic workers where some of the most relevant points to artists arose. What both group spent much of their time in the initial years doing was reaching out to their constituents through education programs — making sure domestic workers and taxi drivers were aware of their current rights, and also making sure they were aware that these groups would be able to provide a kind of support structure for the workers, many of whom are immigrants and/or from other marginalized groups. They also have worked throughout to maintain and establish trust by making sure that those in leadership and outreach roles in the organizations were themselves workers in these fields. But the most important thing that both groups did was work toward a clear set of political demands. In the case of the domestic workers, in particular, that became the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights — the passage of which in New York marked a major success for the group after years of work.
… what became incredibly clear is that if artists are not organized and vocal with local politicians than they will have little to no influence over one of the key issues that effects the arts and artists — land use.
Creating a set of demands seems simple enough, but the legwork required to articulate those demands, build community agreement around them, and garner political support for them is no small feat. Both the taxi workers and domestic workers have spent years organizing ahead of their major victories. Interestingly, that is already beginning to happen in at least one niche of the arts in New York — independent theater. Just this past week The League of Independent Theater (LITNY) put together a “Meet the Candidates” event that built on four years of groundwork during which they hosted town halls and strategy sessions in order to come up with a “Performing Arts Platform.” They then reached out to candidates for public office around the city asking them to review the platform and also to attend the Meet the Candidates event. Close to twenty candidates attended the event and even more responded to the platform in writing. At the live event many offered up everything from personal artistic credentials to pledges of support for specific items on the platform as a means of convincing the couple hundred people gathered that they were invested in keeping the arts and artists central to the city’s life.
While it’s true that only one mayoral candidate attended the LITNY event (one who is not a serious contender for the office), and a percentage of what was said could be dismissed as glad-handing, what became incredibly clear is that if artists are not organized and vocal with local politicians than they will have little to no influence over one of the key issues that effects the arts and artists — land use. Time and again throughout the evening, whether it was questions of affordable performance space or affordable housing, land use processes were mentioned as one of the most important pieces of city machinery that those seeking sustainable living conditions and arts spaces need to pay attention to. And redevelopment efforts under the Bloomberg administration that rezoned and altered land use agreements have been one of the driving forces in eliminating affordable housing and low-cost performance spaces (see the My Brooklyn documentary for a detailed look of one such rezoning effort).
LITNY’s model is nothing new — they’re incorporated as an advocacy group that supports independent theaters through support for and attempts to influence politicians. It’s not dissimilar from other advocacy groups in that way. But it does offer membership to independent artists and its platform opens the doors for individual artists to make gains if it was taken up, rather than just focusing on theaters. Below is the platform they are asking candidates to endorse (quoted directly from their website):
As a pro-performing arts elected official, I will work to:
- Create access to low-cost and/or no-cost Community Facilities Spaces that are currently available and remain unused throughout the City through the creation of a Community Facilities Space Database.
- Create access to empty and unused City property to be re-purposed as temporary rehearsal, office and (if appropriate), performance space.
- Include non-profit performance venues in the favorable electricity and utility rates enjoyed by religious institutions and the VFW.
- Implement a proposal that would reduce or eliminate property tax assessments for those non-profit organizations that have an artistic mission and/or rent performance space to similar non-profit performing arts groups with artistic missions of their own. This proposal was unanimously ratified by all twelve (12) Manhattan Community Boards.
- Secure affordable permanent low-cost housing for working artists. In addition, work to provide access to affordable healthcare for these artists, depending on the status and reach of the Affordable Care Act at the time of negotiations.
- Support the commission of an economic impact study for the independent theater territory.
- Work with the Department of Cultural Affairs to expand the Cultural Institutions Group to include the independent theater sector’s anchor venues.
- Install plaques at sites of historical import and rename streets after the founders of the independent and Off-Off Broadway community.
You could quibble with pieces of it, but the points they’re making highlight real change that could happen and that would directly impact their field, as well as other artists and arts orgs. And because LITNY doesn’t have access to the kind of capital and lobbyists, or the extremely wealthy and politically-connected types who sit on the boards of places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Guggenheim, old-fashioned political participation and local politics represent a real place to start.
But some valid notes of concern and/or caution were repeated by a couple of the candidates representing underserved areas of the city. They seemed to agree that while some of the issues facing artists are unique and that the arts and culture play a central role in the city, the reality is that basic housing and services (particularly healthcare and education) for all low and middle income residents of the city are in bad shape, and some will and do perceive placing the priorities of artists as a group above those of low-income families, for instance, as problematic. Which seemed to send a message that building coalitions and making commitments to the communities in which you make work, will be just as important as trying to influence candidates. The Arts & Labor group appears to be doing this by supporting other labor efforts around the city and beyond the city, as well as seeking out and participating in groups working toward alternative economic models that could be transformative for society as a whole. Admittedly Arts & Labor is far more radical in its political approach. It’s less clear at this point how LITNY is building coalitions outside of the independent theater community, but, at the very least, the achievement of their goals has the potential to impact some artists in other fields.
Other established groups focused on the working and living conditions of artists (among others) in the city (and elsewhere) are W.A.G.E., the Foundry Theatre through it’s ongoing series of Dialogues, the Freelancers Union, The Field’s Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists Program, and Fractured Atlas. Feel free to add others in the comments section.