Opinion

How to Address the Shortcomings of New York City’s Official Cultural Plan

The artists and activists who created “The People’s Cultural Plan,” a community-first alternative to New York City’s official Cultural Plan, offer solutions to the latter’s many problems and blindspots.

Artist Alicia Grullón at one of the cultural plan meetings (image courtesy Hester Street Collaborative)
Artist and People’s Cultural Plan member Alicia Grullón at one of the cultural plan meetings (image courtesy Hester Street Collaborative)

New Yorkers face a massive crisis in housing and affordability and huge inequities in funding for arts and culture. Public land is being sold off to developers; homelessness is reaching heights not seen in the city since the Great Depression; and most of the arts community hangs on by a thread. We need a cultural plan matching the scale of the crisis, proposing bold, courageous action — but Mayor de Blasio’s “CreateNYC” Cultural Plan disappoints, with its cosmetic and feel-good narrative. Where’s the activist mayor who pledged to fight Albany so that New York City could collect higher income taxes? Where are the City Council members who faced arrest protesting the 2015 expiration of the rent laws?

We’re pleased that CreateNYC highlights the need for greater equity, seeking to make our cultural institutions more inclusive. This mandate reflects a commitment to the work begun in 2015 with the Department of Cultural Affairs’ (DCLA) first ever diversity survey — whose results informed some of our work on the People’s Cultural Plan (PCP). We’ll continue to encourage such efforts and take action to fix this malignant problem. It’s imperative that New York take the lead, because New York is a city of color.

Nonetheless, CreateNYC is missing fundamental components, which fall broadly into two categories: the lack of concrete funding commitments, and the absence of adequate anti-displacement policies. We will address funding first, because CreateNYC was undertaken by the DCLA, whose primary mission is to fund cultural organizations.

Funding distribution and racial and cultural equity

Without proposing funding sources, amounts, or a clear timeframe, CreateNYC proposes to “create a more equitable distribution of funding” through “new supports for arts and cultural organizations with a primary mission of serving historically underrepresented/underserved communities,” and efforts to support professional development for “cultural workers from underrepresented groups.” Beyond the noncommittal nature of these proposals, we’re troubled that CreateNYC shifts the burden of making the cultural sector more equitable away from the public sector — its own sphere — onto private institutions and the private sector. In contrast, we maintain that a government plan must detail how the public sector can serve we the people better.

At the Mayor’s CreateNYC press conference on July 19, he stated that DCLA grantees will be required to produce “diversity plans” and organizations applying for funding will “answer a question about their approach to diversity.” These applications are already extremely burdensome for many small institutions with budgets under $750,000, where investing 40 or more hours to complete an application is more challenging, and more so still for organizations led by immigrants for whom English is a second language. Due to this, PCP calls for the elimination of competitive funding applications entirely to be replaced with baselined, unrestricted general operating support for all DCLA grantees. In contrast, CreateNYC asks organizations to jump through more hoops, rather than reducing administrative burdens exacerbating smaller and people-of-color-led organizations’ unequal access to wealth and resources in the first place.

A public sector solution, on the other hand, would: designate funding for more jobs in the sector, especially at small POC-led organizations serving POC and/or disabled, LGBTQ, and elder populations. Provide funding for additional staff focused on organizational diversity and disability access. Allocate funding for the development of diversity plans, so that organizations don’t have to re-direct already scarce funding and human resources away from other activities, and for required institutional changes. Because hiring new POC staff to rectify racist systemic policies will create additional emotional labor for them, shifts in administration must be accompanied by in-depth yearly training on undoing systemic racism. The PCP made a robust set of recommendations in this area, and to ensure that artists and cultural workers receive adequate wages in the process — but an additional $140 million in annual funding is a prerequisite.

The agenda for the People's Cultural Plan's meeting with Department of Cultural Affairs leaders
The agenda for the People’s Cultural Plan’s meeting with Department of Cultural Affairs leaders

As it stands, CreateNYC lacks any funding commitments whatsoever for its “equity and inclusion” proposals. We foresee an alarming, if unintended, consequence: organizations with larger budgets and more paid staff — the same ones already attracting the vast majority of all public and private funding — will be better positioned to fund the creation and implementation of newly mandated diversity plans, thereby making them more competitive and ultimately increasing rather than mitigating existing inequity between large and small organizations.

In a section on “Progressive Cultural Funding,” CreateNYC presents the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) of the 1970s as a case study for providing crucial funding for NYC artists and cultural workers — without calling for any similar effort on that scale. To be fair, de Blasio announced $18.5 million in new funding as part of CreateNYC’s rollout. While we commend the Mayor, this funding — the only commitment to date — doesn’t correspond to recommendations made by CreateNYC. The funding breaks down as follows:

  • $10 million from the Administration
  • $3.5 million in council initiatives (CASA and Cultural Immigrant Fund)
  • $5 million for “Mostly Smaller Organizations” in the City Council’s Schedule C

Of the $10 million from the administration, $4.5 million has already been allocated to the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG), and of that sum, $2,332,786 alone was directed to the wealthiest five CIGs: the Metropolitan Museum, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, and the New York Botanical Garden. That’s more than half of the funding going to CIGs overall, and 23% of the increase from the Mayor’s side going to just 5 institutions out of 1,000.

Hence, despite the rhetoric in CreateNYC about “creating new supports for institutions with a primary mission of serving historically underrepresented/underserved communities” and “increasing support for (CIGs) in low-income communities” — and even despite the rumors of a “strained relationship” between de Blasio and the elite art world — the budget tells the true story: de Blasio remains as committed to the inequities in the DCLA budget as his predecessor.

While the City Council added $5 million this year to support smaller cultural organizations (funding yet to be allocated, almost 3 months into the fiscal year), these figures don’t reflect the scope of the problem. To understand that, we turn to the one chart DCLA didn’t include in CreateNYC:

(source: City & State)
(source: City & State)

This arrangement — whereby Manhattan gets 10x the per capita funding of Queens and the 33 institutions of the CIG (out of 1,000 organizations funded in total) get 77% of the programmatic and general operating support — needs to be the starting point for any realistic discussion.

We estimate DCLA’s budget must increase by $270 million annually in order to achieve funding parity across the city’s neighborhoods, with the vast majority going to the outer boroughs and under-funded neighborhoods in Manhattan. As we previously explained, we don’t advocate for redistributing current funding, which would result in job losses. Instead we demand bold action. By refusing even to include information about the current public funding distribution, which CUNY’s Equality Indicators study ranked a failing 10/100 on its equality scale, CreateNYC falls desperately short of the mark, despite its rhetoric.

Displacement and hyper-development

As problematic as its budgetary obfuscation is, the deeper flaw of CreateNYC is its failure to address the displacement and dispossession crisis. Culture is rooted in place, and when low income communities of color, working artists, and other low-rent artisans and makers in industrial zones are displaced, they cannot contribute to the cultural life of New York, no matter how many diversity plans are drawn up. CreateNYC suppresses this fact and hides the city government’s role in creating the crisis.

Throughout the public feedback process for CreateNYC, when PCP raised the issue of the instrumentalization of the arts for displacement, DCLA responded that those concerns were outside of its purview. Our position is belied by four facts: firstly, DCLA hired real estate development consultants to work on CreateNYC, whose past and current projects are directly implicated in displacement; secondly, DCLA is involved in administering de Blasio’s Affordable Real Estate for Artists initiative (AREA), which is touted in CreateNYC itself; thirdly, the cultural plan legislation mandates that DCLA develop inter-agency collaborations, which it already does — including with the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC); and finally, CreateNYC already contains recommendations addressing “Affordability” and “Neighborhood Character.” Above all else, the most salient fact is that the DCLA is not an independent agency, but a component of the New York City government.

A People's Cultural Plan sign at a protest
A People’s Cultural Plan sign at a protest

The crisis can be stated simply: the cost of living in New York City is rising much faster than wages and income, and every year the rent burden increases on remaining residents. We as artists and cultural workers now recognize that we must be in solidarity with every city resident, and not seek concessions specific to artists via developer and city incentives, which often displace others through artwashing and ultimately, as rents rise, leading to our own displacement. For example, Keith Rubenstein of Somerset Partners and the Chetrit Group use artwashing strategies, supporting small art organizations and initiatives for local artists, to disguise his octopean stranglehold on the South Bronx.

These types of false solutions, which entice uninformed artists and pit artists against communities, make up the entirety of the recommendations in CreateNYC concerning “Affordability” and “Neighborhood Character.” Like policies already in place, the creation of new artist live and work space within private developments, through public funding and/or incentives that increase developer profits, primarily benefits the real estate sector, not working artists. Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability are the models: rezoned neighborhoods allow for an influx of mostly luxury apartments, along with a small number of “affordable” units (most of which are unaffordable to current residents). For every artist housed, another 10 or 20 will be priced out of the neighborhood — along with countless community members — due to rising surrounding rents.

What is offered is inadequate to the scale of the artist community’s needs: AREA proposes to build 1,500 units of affordable workspace and just 500 units of affordable housing over a 10-year period.  Yet in 2014, 53,000 artists applied for 89 affordable apartments in El Barrio’s Artspace PS109. Aggravating class tensions is the fact that Artspace PS 109 is surrounded by NYCHA housing, where residents wait years for repairs to be made. Unfortunately, from NYCHA residents’ perspectives, PS109 could begin to look like artwashing, leading to subsequent changes like the recent push to turn a local public playground in El Barrio for the construction of luxury condos.

We call for policy changes to help all New York City residents. True solutions must reverse structural policies that created the problem: massive giveaways to developers, a tidal wave of rezonings across the city, and lack of adequate rent controls. The 421a tax break gives $2.4 billion of our public money to developers, enabling them to build luxury housing. Mayor de Blasio continues the disastrous “inclusionary” rezoning policies of former mayor Mike Bloomberg, and the results — predictable from 2014 — are apparent: median housing prices in Queens reached 83% of median income in 2016, and in Brooklyn 129% of median income.

The launch event for the People's Cultural Plan (all images courtesy People's Cultural Plan)
The launch event for the People’s Cultural Plan (all images courtesy People’s Cultural Plan unless indicated otherwise)

Instead of rejecting the public-private partnerships implemented by the EDC and the Department of City Planning (DCP), CreateNYC’s recommendations are complicit with the handing over of even more publicly-owned land to private developers, so that they alone may profit from assets that we the people own. Presently, the Bedford-Union Armory, a publicly held property in Crown Heights, is at risk of being converted into market-rate condos; Why isn’t this property being developed by a non-profit, or being turned into a Community Land Trust with 100% affordability for the community? The Brooklyn Navy Yard, another huge city-owned industrial property, is also being developed by the de Blasio administration and the EDC as a creative tech-hub— with high-rent tenants coming in and pricing out working artists and jobs-producing manufacturers.

Many artists, musicians, dancers, and artisans depend on affordable workspaces to maintain their practices, and the Cultural Plan must therefore address the commercial rent crisis. In Prospect-Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn, a beloved dance school was shuttered when its storefront rent more than doubled. In Gowanus, an entire building was emptied of its working artists and artisans when the landlord refused to renew any leases. We desperately need commercial rent protection for artists, manufacturers, and mom and pop stores, many owned by immigrants and POC. The Cultural Plan should call for the passage of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) sitting in committee in the City Council, and for protecting NYC’s precious industrial zones.

We recognize that many laws affecting the city’s residential rent levels are controlled by Albany. These include the 421a tax breaks, and rent stabilization itself, including the onerous luxury and vacancy decontrols, which have caused the loss of over 230,000 rent stabilized apartments since the 1980s. A realistic cultural plan must address these policies.

There’s no time for “exploring” obvious solutions for which the present city government lacks the political will. We need a cultural plan with concrete economic solutions, from the public sector. The PCP is such a plan, but CreateNYC is not.

As citizens we must demand more and refuse to allow our Mayor and city government to be trapped in the role of administrators of austerity, accountable more to the bond markets than to the people. Community is needed more than ever. We must unite, speak out, and take action in the face of racial, economic, and environmental injustices destroying our societies. Our culture depends upon it.

Read more about the People’s Cultural Plan here.

comments (0)