Shehab Chowdhury speaking to those gathered for the Oct 22, 2014 participatory budgeting meeting in Brooklyn, NY's 39th District focused on Arts, Community & Culture. (All photos by author for Hyperallergic.)

Shehab Chowdhury speaking to those gathered for the Oct 22, 2014 participatory budgeting meeting in Brooklyn, NY’s 39th District focused on Arts, Community & Culture (all photos by author for Hyperallergic)

Both Councilman Brad Lander and Shehab Chowdhury, one of the volunteer facilitators, tried to put it politely, but arts-related projects haven’t fared well in the participatory budgeting process in New York City thus far. They weren’t saying this to discourage those gathered in mid-October for a session focused on Arts, Community, and Culture in Councilman Lander’s 39th District of Brooklyn, but rather to provide a little context and help explain some of the reasoning behind creating sessions focused on specific sets of issues rather than having only general meetings where all the issues were thrown into the same pot.

Let me first quickly explain what participatory budgeting is. (You can also watch this 3-minute video and skip this paragraph.) It started in the late 1980s in Porto Alegro, Brazil, in an effort to give citizens a greater say in how resources were allocated in their local communities, with a particular emphasis on making sure the voices of those living in slums and other areas underserved by the government were being heard. In the decades since then it has gradually spread to other cities. New York City began beta-testing participatory budgeting in 2011 and Lander’s 39th District was one of the first to give it a try (other early adopters included Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich, and Jumaane Williams). In New York, each participating Councilperson decides on a certain amount of money to allocate to the process (it has to be at least $1 million) and that money can only be spent on capital projects — things like building projects, repairs to existing buildings, or the purchase of equipment. A group of citizens then get together, come up with projects to propose, and put those projects out for public review. The final decision about which projects will receive funding is put to popular vote.

Brad Lander addresses audience at participatory budgeting meeting.

Brad Lander addresses audience at participatory budgeting meeting

Over the four years since the project was launched in the city, it’s been fine-tuned and has expanded quite a bit. This year there are participatory budgeting processes in 23 districts in the city (in every borough except Staten Island). Each Councilperson makes the decision about whether or not to participate individually, it is not currently required by the city. When I asked a volunteer with Participatory Budgeting NYC about why a Councilperson might choose to participate or not, she mentioned possible pros being both a belief in the process and a chance to cultivate stronger relationships with constituents and cons being that the process takes a good amount of staff time and that the money is no longer under your control.

As for why the arts haven’t fared well in the process, based on comments from Lander and others in the room, it seems to relate to two major issues: 1) a perception that the benefits of arts-focused projects are not as concrete as say re-paving a crumbling path in a park, and 2) projects led by non-profits are often not seen as truly public — in other words, the number of people who will benefit can appear small and its not always clear that the public would have any access to the space or equipment. Lander also mentioned that when a project is proposed by a public school, for instance, they can rally the PTA and the local community connected to the school to participate in the vote, but artists and arts organizations seem to have a harder time getting people to show up to vote in the participatory budgeting process. Welcome to politics!

Sitting in that meeting felt like a tiny microcosm of the issues that face the arts on a macro level in the US. It’s related to a particular cognitive dissonance in our society in which an overwhelming majority of people readily acknowledge that they are moved and/or inspired by art, but that they do not believe artists contribute to “the general good of society.” The clearest data on this disconnect comes from the 2002 study conducted by the Urban Institute called the American Perceptions of Artists Survey (quick summaryoriginal data).

Politics is very much a matter of negotiating between numerous different interests and opinions. In a way, participatory budgeting in the context of New York City is as much a real life civics class as it is a way to gain a modicum of power over a small slice of hyper-local decision making.

No community meeting is complete without snacks. The spread here definitely felt appropriate to the Park Slope location.

No community meeting is complete without snacks. The spread here definitely felt appropriate to the Park Slope location.

So, if the arts aren’t getting funded, what is? Lander told an illustrative story. In the first two years in his district, a large portion of the funding went to paying for bathrooms within public schools to be repaired because they were in such deplorable condition. Thankfully, rather than this becoming a running theme, the Department of Education allocated their own money so that local councils weren’t having to pay for the repairs. That said, public schools still dominate these processes. Other popular funding areas including upkeep and equipment for public libraries, public park and community garden projects, as well as street and sidewalk repairs. See a full listing of all the funded projects in NYC here. The emphasis in all of them being a clear articulation of a “public good,” but also an affiliation with groups that can turn out large numbers of voters (schools, libraries, parks, neighborhood associations).

In a sense, by gathering people with a shared interest in the arts and culture, Lander was presenting a challenge to the group — work together to come up with ideas and projects that you can not only show benefit the public, but that you can work together on in order to turn out voters. Lander also made it clear to those in attendance that he uses these forums as a way to hear about ideas that he may be able to support through his own discretionary funding when they aren’t eligible for participatory budgeting — everything from buying a dishwasher for a senior center to helping with the purchase of a projector for Celebrate Brooklyn, a series of free music and arts events that take place Prospect Park every summer.

Some of the crowd gathered to talk about Arts, Community, and Culture projects.

Some of the crowd gathered to talk about Arts, Community, and Culture projects.

I decided to sit in on a breakout group focused on space. We quickly learned about what public spaces were available that are under-utilized in the district — from portions of the Park Slope Armory to the second floor of the Pacific Library. We were also given a sense of how much less public community space is available. This was particularly apparent when two residents of the Gowanus Houses, a public housing complex that sits just outside the boundaries of Lander’s district, spoke about common rooms in the complex being used in the past as a self-sustaining community center with residents doing everything from hosting cooking classes to family events, whereas now those spaces have been either co-opted by city agencies for everything from law enforcement to storage, or they have been closed off to residents for lack of repairs following Hurricane Sandy. It was also easy to see why arts organizations that put forward ideas struggle in this setting — two people from small arts organizations that put forward ideas ultimately were talking about facilities for their own organizations. In order to succeed, they would need to have a strong foothold in the neighborhood and a clear case for the public benefit.

Some of the notes taken in the breakout group focused on space.

Some of the notes taken in the breakout group focused on space.

For me, one of the strongest takeaways was that there seems to have been a pretty dramatic decline in multi-use spaces available to residents in the city. I know from participating in town halls in my own neighborhood of Crown Heights, that we have no community center of any kind at present, but this wasn’t always the case. We used to have what’s called in a Beacon School — a program in NYC whereby schools would open to the community outside of school hours for classes, sports activities and arts programs. Now there is nowhere to go, particularly for young people and the elderly. Working across groups to advocate for multi-use spaces could help local arts communities broaden the reach of proposals and help turn out a larger number of voters given a coalition approach.

Either way, it’s a fascinating project and well-worth getting involved in if it’s available in your area. As many people noted at the meeting, even if the arts aren’t at the top of every winning proposal, by having artists involved in the process there are ways of building coalitions that could bring the arts into winning proposals in places like libraries, schools, and parks. And if Lander’s practice of using some of his own discretionary funds to support projects that don’t win or aren’t eligible is any indication, it gives you a chance to articulate needs to someone who has the power to help in a significant way. Plus, because it’s a community event, it’s inevitable that you end up learning some local history that you never would have known otherwise.

Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She recently started a podcast, The Answer is No, focused on artists sharing stories about challenging the conditions under which they are...