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Artists and Activists Propose a “People’s Cultural Plan” for New York City

As the Department of Cultural Affairs works on the official NYC cultural plan, a group of activists has advanced its own ambitious vision.

Artist Alicia Grullón speaking at a CreateNYC cultural plan meeting (image courtesy Hester Street Collaborative)

Since October, New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) has conducted more than 100 interviews, held dozens of focus groups and dozens more tabling events, and surveyed 10,000 residents. The focus of these inquiries has been the city’s first-ever cultural plan, dubbed CreateNYC. When it’s released in July, the plan will become a blueprint for funding and supporting arts and culture throughout New York City, and the DCLA has been soliciting public input.

“New Yorkers value arts and culture — and they want more of it,” states “What We Heard,” a document compiling the findings from this recently completed phase of the planning process. The DCLA — which, it’s worth noting, is the largest cultural funding agency in the US — released the overview on Monday, an 18-pager filled with infographics and stats outlining what arts and culture–related issues New Yorkers care about most. The document identifies eight key areas, from “Equity” and “Social & Economic Impact” to “Arts, Culture & Science Education” and “Neighborhood Character.” It takes readers through each one, offering lists and sublists of goals within each area. Some, like “Consider Community Land Trusts, fractional ownership, rent to own, deed restrictions, cross subsidization, and mobile studios,” are refreshingly forward-thinking and specific; others, like “Partner with City agencies and community stakeholders to support cultural preservation in neighborhoods across all five boroughs,” sound admirable but uselessly broad.

Graphic from CreateNYC’s “What We Heard” (image via createnyc.org)

The DCLA has made a point of stressing the amount of outreach it’s done and the number of diverse voices it’s solicited — but the cultural plan is not without its critics. In January, three local artists and activists, Jenny Dubnau, Alicia Grullón, and Shellyne Rodrigueztold Hyperallergic of their misgivings about the way the plan is being created. This week, as part of a larger coalition of roughly two dozen artists, activists, and cultural workers, they responded to the official process by releasing their own blueprint for the city, the “People’s Cultural Plan” (PCP).

“Artists, cultural workers, and cultural access in the city are in a huge crisis,” said Dubnau. “If you’re going to have a plan in our time, we felt it had to be a powerful, strongly worded, tough, courageous plan. If you’re not going to talk about actual policy that’s making artists leave the city, displacing communities of color, where the funding is so lopsided in terms of equity — if you’re not going to radically approach those issues, it’s not going to be a relevant enough plan.”

Dubnau’s comments echo the three core issues of the PCP: “Equitable Housing, Land, & Development Politics,” “Labor Equity,” and “Public Funding Equity.” None of those headers would look out of place in the DCLA’s “What We Heard” document, but the tone and scope of the PCP are vastly different, beginning with its opening paragraph:

Inequity in arts and culture is a persistent problem in New York City. The worsening climate of fear, intolerance, and fascism, especially affecting immigrants, all people of color, and LGBTQ individuals, must be countered with more than lip service in support of “diversity”: Only by implementing true equity in all city policies will the most vulnerable be protected from the multiple crises facing our communities. As a sanctuary city, any cultural plan for New York must be supportive of the lives and contributions of All People of Color, including tribally-enrolled indigenous people, Black, Asian, Latinx, and Arab peoples, and the LGBTQ, disabled, and elder members of our communities.

The 17-page plan goes on to make a host of detailed policy recommendations, from, in the housing section, calling for a citywide rent freeze on stabilized apartments and the overturning of the Urstadt Law; to, in the labor section, demanding mandatory artist compensation, salary caps or maximum ratios within institutions, and the passage of the state-level New York Health Act; and, in the funding section, the implementation of language access plans and mandating that DCLA budget increases “go first to neighborhoods, districts, organizations and artists that currently receive the lowest allocations, and first to organizations led by and serving communities of color.” It’s a wide-ranging but deeply researched document that seeks to redress structural inequities.

“Why can we not reimagine more for ourselves? Why not begin with the arts?” asked Grullón, who went on to cite a host of academics and “creative thinkers” whose work the group had drawn on in making its plan (some of which are cited within the document). “We’re not reinventing the wheel; we’re trying to fix the vehicle that is on the wheel.”

Graphic by: @fatitaj #WEcreateNYC is a platform to enrich the cultural life and legacy of NYC by centralizing the lived experiences of African-, Arab-, Asian-, Caribbean-, Chicanx-, Latinx-, Native-, and Pacific Islander-American descended people. We celebrate the vitality and vibrancy of these communities with a living cultural plan using their stories past, present, and future. We understand that culture- foods, music, art, and language- hold our desires, stories, and endeavoring to be a people that are braver than the histories that bring us shame. Our living cultural plan prioritizes a multigenerational approach to building a just, inclusive, equitable city – a new ecological system that is not only imagined, but reached. Join the conversation using the #CulturalEquityNYC ! #poc #CulturalEquityNYC #WEcreateNYC #harlem #statenisland #manhattan #brooklyn #queens #bronx #createequity #nyc #forusbyus

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In its introduction, the PCP specifically calls out the contracting of two companies to work on the cultural plan: James Lima Planning + Development, which is focused “on the economics of placemaking,” and BJH Advisors LLC, “a real estate development and advisory firm.” As noted previously by Seph Rodney for Hyperallergic, the activists “argue that these organizations … are already involved in projects (they cite the MIH/ZQA rezonings and the BQX trolley car schemes) that will result in the displacement of long-time residents, mostly through raising the average cost of rent.” When asked about the objection to these firms, a spokesperson for the DCLA noted that CreateNYC’s lead contractor, Hester Street Collaborative, had enlisted them, and told me that both “bring an understanding of planning and development in New York — something that’s incredibly important when the cost of real estate is central to many of the issues and concerns we’ve heard through CreateNYC.”

But to Dubnau and Grullón, the hiring of the firms represents a larger, more problematic ethos embedded in the project: looking at culture in New York City through corporate-colored glasses — that is, as a question of economics. “It just highlights the motivation behind the city, where economics … becomes a much more urgent matter for them rather than the current state that folks are living in,” said Grullón. “Their reasons will be: Arts and culture and creativity are tied to economic vitality. They create new jobs. But new jobs for who? Especially when we bring in questions of the ‘creative class.’ There’s no investment made in the small businesses that are already there. There’s no thinking of how to revitalize economic development in a way that’s sustainable for the future but radically changes our connection to place and still keeps people there. Their initiative is to bring in more tourism. Their view of economic growth and vitality does not have foresight. It is outdated. We can see repeatedly that it only benefits the very few.

“The city’s plan is making nods towards cultural equity, but in terms of the real estate angle, it becomes a question of, what is culture?” Dubnau added. “Is it this creative tech, real estate–driven appearance of culture, where the rents are skyrocketing and the real culture makers and communities can’t afford to remain in place? Or is it a vital city where immigrants get to stay, working artists get to remain?”

Graphic from CreateNYC’s “What We Heard” (image via createnyc.org)

Members of the PCP group have spoken with representatives of the DCLA, and both sides remarked upon the discussions positively. Since the official cultural plan is still in formation — public polling is happening now, online — the ball is, as the saying goes, in the DCLA’s court.

“I would like to see DCLA implement what we recommend in our plan that they do have direct control over, which is funding,” Dubnau said, acknowledging that a number of proposals in the PCP are out of the department’s control and tied to measures overseen by the city council, mayor, or even the state government. They group also believes the DCLA could start working to guarantee “all artists and workers … a basic wage, benefits, job security.” But most importantly, Dubnau said, “we would love to have the DCLA make concrete policy recommendations. I don’t see why — other than politics and caution — a document like the NYC cultural plan cannot make concrete policy recommendations that go outside the purview of the Department of Cultural Affairs.”

“We’ve seen the People’s Cultural Plan and we’re glad to have this thorough set of proposals in hand, along with the feedback from the more than 185,000 New Yorkers we’ve heard from since last fall,” the DCLA spokesperson commented. “The planning process is still underway, and we will absolutely consider these ideas as we work toward releasing the CreateNYC cultural plan this summer.”

Aerial view of the architect’s rendering of the Shed structure at night (image via Wikipedia)

If it’s hard to believe that a government agency would go out on a limb and adopt something as radical as the PCP, it might make sense to hope for the creation of something that falls in between: A plan that accounts for at least some of the city’s blind spots (such as the DCLA “giving nearly 60% of its funding to Manhattan alone out of the five boroughs, and almost 80% of its funding to only 33 of the 1,000+ organizations funded,” according to the PCP). A plan that balances an awareness of culture’s economic value with an understanding that the impact of the arts is, ultimately, immeasurable. A plan that considers community groups as vital to the future of the city as a high-end Shed.

“When we fund, we have to think of funding for justice,” Grullón said. “We have to start thinking about how that is the driving force behind culture.”

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