“Mujeres en Movimiento” from the launch of CycleNews, a collaborative project that grew from Tania Bruguera’s artist residency with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (image courtesy DCLA)

Back in June, 70 of New York City’s leading arts organizations sent a letter to the New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) to organize a summit for cultural institutions to more effectively support the city’s immigrant communities. The list of signatories included Abrons Art Center, Bidoun, National Black Theatre, Recess, Smack Mellon, Visual AIDS, and W.A.G.E.. It’s worth noting that no major museum in the city — like the Museum of Modern Art or the Brooklyn Museum — have signed onto the initiative.

“The ruthless assault on immigrant communities, and on migrants trying to seek asylum at the border, has reached unprecedented levels,” one section of the letter reads. “We are appalled by these actions happening in America now, and believe this is a moment where we have to hold each other and our institutions accountable.” The letter is posted below in full.

It’s not rare for New York City to feel like its own country separated from the rest of the United States, but increasingly aggressive rhetoric surrounding immigration and sanctuary city policies has widened the gap between city and country.

According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, about 1.2 million of the country’s 11.1 million undocumented immigrants live in New York City. Nearly 40 percent of the City’s population is foreign-born, or just about 3.3 million people from over 150 countries according to the comptroller. Thus, the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrant-friendly cities like NYC and his widespread use of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to apprehend undocumented immigrants presents a crucial challenge for the city’s municipal authorities.

Now, the DCLA and the MOIA have  agreed to collaborate on a one-day “office hours” which will occur on the afternoon of Thursday, August 30 at the Department of Cultural Affairs. Co-organized by Art Space Sanctuary and No Longer Empty, two nonprofits devoted to social justice, the conference will welcome its participates with a series of lectures, workshops, and trainings that explore the immigrant experience in the United States. Entitled, “What Can We Do? Immigration and the Cultural Community,” organizers are hoping to pose a handful of key questions: What kinds of artistic and educational programming can be of service to immigrant communities? What city policies that are welcoming to immigrant communities can be applied to cultural institutions? What kind of staff and volunteer training opportunities may be useful or necessary?

Through this special combination of civic, artistic, and pedagogical dialogues, the event team hopes to reinvigorate the art world’s commitment to immigrant communities.

“Ensuring that the City is responsive to the needs of all immigrant New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, is a key priority for the de Blasio Administration,” said DLCA’s Director of External Affairs, Ryan Max. “So we are using the Office Hours as an informal, audience-led conversation where we can ask questions, provide information, and share ideas for supporting our immigrant neighbors.”

Max added that a larger summit will likely happen later in the fall.

Raquel de Anda, director of Public Engagement at No Longer Empty who has helped plan the office hours event and the October symposium, reiterates Max’s sentiment. She tells Hyperallergic that this conference will be the first step in a much longer initiative to protect and serve immigrant populations in the city.

“Cities are the first line of defense against a federal government that has become toxic and extremely hostile toward immigrants. Arts organizations have a powerful opportunity to step up and rise to the call, by becoming engaged and playing a crucial role in protecting and serving migrant communities,” continues Farman. “Our goal is to find and facilitate the pathways for artists and cultural organizations to become directly engaged in this struggle, by working with advocacy groups, frontline communities, and most importantly, immigrants themselves.”

Farman notes that artists and cultural organizations can provide many practical solutions to ameliorate the nation’s current anti-immigrant trend. He explains that they can generate new communities that create counternarratives to racist anti-immigrant falsehoods. De Anda added that they can help make the US feel welcoming again:

At the center of this, art can tell the stories of the people most impacted to make sure their humanity is not erased in this moment. What immigrants have endured to come to this country, what they have escaped from and what they have built here, these are heroic stories and should be celebrated.

Abou Farman, an artist who also teaches anthropology at the New School and founded Art Space Sanctuary, stresses that ICE is a predatory agency without accountability. “[ICE] frequently breaks the law and lies and misrepresents; it has a racist agenda. We can’t think of it as just a kind of Arendtian banality of evil with bureaucrats who follow rules. These are people who are armed and active agents, hunters hunting down black and brown people.

Speaking with Hyperallergic via email, Farman points out that “with ICE, you get almost 16,000 people a month being taken from their communities and families. According to agency’s own proud presentation of the numbers, the average daily population in detention is almost 40,000.”

As for why more cultural institutions have failed to stand up for immigrant rights, Farman hypothesizes that they are scared to wade into political waters for fear of having their nonprofit status revoked. (In the United States, nonprofits are required to not engage in political activities by law, though what qualifies as political can often be debatable.) The issue of the National Rifle Association (NRA), for instance, is discussed here. 

“This initiative is an opportunity to address some of these matters and also to come together as a larger whole and try and develop a wider swathe of protection and coordinate actions,” says Farman.

How will this event affect change in the long run? Farman notes how activism can gain momentum, “A few months ago most people laughed when activists said Abolish ICE. Then [New York gubernatorial candidate] Cynthia Nixon said it during a press conference organized by the New Sanctuary Coalition in support of Debora Barrios who has taken sanctuary in a church. Then [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], who had also visited one of the NSC community meetings, blew into the media. And soon members of Congress were saying it. Things don’t shift on their own.”

*    *    *

To: Tom Finkelpearl
Department of Cultural Affairs, New York
330 W 42nd St
New York, NY 10036

CC: Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs

Re: Sanctuary Summit

Date: June 22, 2018

Artspace Sanctuary and the undersigned organizations are writing to invite the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), along with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), to help convene a gathering of the cultural community, including libraries, in order to explore the options they have within the law (and in cognizance of 501(c)3 status) and the positive, critical role that they might play in the current crisis around migration and racism; to stand up and to provide the most basic level of safety and equality of access, and demonstrate solidarity with communities across the boroughs.

The ruthless assault on immigrant communities, and on migrants trying to seek asylum at the border, has reached unprecedented levels. You have heard the stories – thousands of children have been forcibly separated from their parents by armed border patrol as a matter of state policy; hundreds of children who have been taken away have been “lost;” immigration judges are being forced to criminalize migrants en masse; activists are under attack, and more than 40,000 humans are being held in jails every day by order of Congress, by the impunity of ICE, by the complicity of county officials, and by the inaction of institutions and the citizenry. ICE is pursuing and disappearing up to 16,000 adults and children a month, over 95% from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, many of whom have been residing in the United States for decades, sometimes for 50 years or more. Hundreds of thousands of people are being rendered statusless by executive decisions like those that have scrapped DACA and TPS for many nationalities – including most recently 9,000 Nepalese who have nowhere to turn.

We are appalled by these actions happening in America now, and believe this is a moment where we have to hold each other and our institutions accountable. If we are not able to take a stand at a moment like this, then when will we? That is why we are asking the Department of Cultural Affairs to help convene a Sanctuary Summit in the fall; a gathering of cultural institutions and the cultural community at large to address these matters.

This is an opportunity for New York City’s cultural community to show moral leadership. We are asking the the DCLA and MOIA rise to the occasion, and act as a model for other cities, showing that art is vital the civic process by offering resources to help train and educate our cultural community. Those who are much more vulnerable, with much more at stake, have been willing to take a clear stand. It is time that we learn from the many courageous undocumented activists who say, “sin papeles, sin miedo.”

We invite the Department of Cultural Affairs and MOIA to join committed NYC artists, cultural producers and workers in helping convene a sanctuary summit for cultural organizations and libraries to discuss these matters, to learn from each other, build solidarity and envision actionable strategies as a network of committed cultural workers. We – Artspace Sanctuary and supporters along with the New Sanctuary Coalition – are ready and committed to collaborate with the DCLA and other city offices to make this a reality.

We propose the summit as a one day event, which would include panels, trainings, legal presentations, and strategic workshops on effective practices presented by affected artists, activists and immigrant rights organizations, lawyers, as well as members of cultural institutions, city council members, DCLA, and MOIA. Under the main questions raised by sanctuary, art and education, the summit could address some of the following:

What can cultural organizations do within the limits set by their 501c(3) status?

  • How can spaces be used for education and dialogue around these issues?
  • What kinds of training of staff and volunteers may be useful or necessary?
  • How can artists and activists respond in this moment?
  • What ‘sanctuary city’ policies can be applied to cultural institutions?
  • How can immigrant organizers and cultural institutions best work together? How can they benefit from each others’ work?
  • What kinds of coalitions exist and/or need to be built and what may already be possible with the people in the room?
  • How can we create a safe space and be prepared for raids by ICE?
  • What kinds of artistic and educational programming is appropriate? What is already being done that can be better supported?

Please reply to this proposal by writing to: Abou Farman afarman@newschool.edu and/or Raquel de Anda raquel@nolongerempty.org

Thank you. We look forward to working together with you!

Abrons Art Center
Afrikan Poetry Theatre
Art Connects New York
Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE)
Art in Odd Places
Artists Alliance Inc.
Arts & Democracy
Asian American Writers Workshop
BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange
Bronx Documentary Center
CEC ArtsLink
Center for Artistic Activism
Culture Push
Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM)
Downtown Art
DreamYard Project, Inc.
Firelight Media
Forward Union
Fourth Arts Block
Global Action Project
Hyphen Hub
Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics
Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning
Local Project
Meerkat Media
Museum Hue
Museum of Impact
National Black Theatre
New School Sanctuary Working Group (SWG)
New Sanctuary Coalition
NOCD-NY I Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts New York
No Longer Empty
Not An Alternative
Painting Space 122, Inc.
Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater
Radical Evolution
Residency Unlimited
Shipibo Conibo Center
Smack Mellon
Southeast Queens Artists Alliance
Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling
The Field
The Laundromat Project
The Living Gallery
The Natural History Museum
The Point
The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation
Theater of the Oppressed
Third Streaming
Vera List Center for Art and Politics
Visual AIDS
Yes Lab

Zachary Small was a writer at Hyperallergic.