Opinion

The Deficiency of Bill de Blasio’s Plan for Cultural Equity

On August 1, 2019, the de Blasio administration launched its “Create NYC Action Plan” to celebrate the progress they have made since launching New York City’s first Cultural Plan in 2017. But how much progress has really been made?

From Chinatown Art Brigade’s #ChinatownNot4Sale tour on May 17, 2019 (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

On August 1, 2019, the Bill de Blasio administration launched its “Create NYC Action Plan” to celebrate the progress they have made since launching New York City’s first Cultural Plan in 2017. How much progress has really been made? The answer: It is impossible to tell precisely because the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) is hiding the data necessary to evaluate their progress on cultural equity, the distribution of their overall funding by borough and neighborhood, and the distribution by large and small institutions.

Coverage from leading art journals has taken the administration’s claims at face value by failing to point out that the $1 billion allocated for fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019 is actually less than the allocations made in almost any three years under Bloomberg’s tenure. From fiscal years 2004-2014 (Bloomberg’s last adopted budget) DCLA Expense + Capital funding averaged $480 million annually, with a 3-year average of $1.4 billion (40% higher than the 3 year period celebrated by de Blasio). The three years from FY2009-FY2011 actually saw $1.7 billion in total DCLA allocations.  So while DCLA’s expense budget has increased under de Blasio, its capital budget has declined much more significantly, making the overall totals lower.

There are several worthy accomplishments DCLA did highlight in August: The addition of the Weeksville Heritage Center into the “Cultural Institutions Group” (CIG), the increased funding for the 900+ Cultural Development Fund (CDF) grantees, and the creation of Diversity Plans by the CIG institutions. These are all important and positive. Yet, they easily distract from the bigger picture, that arts funding was, and remains, one of the most inequitable city services according to the CUNY Equality Indicators study. While New York City is certainly the most generous public arts funder in the United States, how it distributes those funds is extraordinarily inequitable, a problem the Cultural Plan was created in part to rectify.

As the following chart shows, prior to the creation of the cultural plan, DCLA’s funding heavily favored the institutions in the CIG (the 33 mostly large institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History) over the nearly 1,000, mostly smaller institutions funded through the Cultural Development Fund (CDF).  Manhattan got more than 50% of total funding for all five boroughs and received a per capital allocation five times that of Brooklyn and 10 times that of Queens.

Chart showing this distribution included in an original study on funding inequity by the Center for an Urban Future in 2016. The chart has been removed from the online article.

Since DCLA’s primary mission is as a funding (rather than programmatic) agency, how it distributes its grants is the single most significant action it can take to create cultural equity in NYC. At the two-year mark, we should be able to track that progress. However, the Action Plan gives us no such information. Furthermore, on NYC’s Open Data website, there is no indication of the location or size of DCLA grantees, preventing us from truly evaluating progress toward funding equity.

However, we are able to evaluate DCLA’s claim to having increased equity within the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) by providing a 17.5% increase for smaller institutions and an 8% increase for larger institutions in 2019. Giving a greater increase to smaller institutions seems like the very definition of equity, until one looks more closely to see that these increases, rather than giving greater funding to lesser-funded organizations, are proportional to the existing allocations (captured in the chart above) that are hugely inequitable.  So even though the percentage increase for the smaller institutions is higher, a 17.5% increase to $300,000 or $400,000 is still significantly less than an 8% increase to $12 million or $4 million — and the net result is increasing inequity rather than increasing equity — the exact opposite of the administration’s claim.

DCLA’s records show that in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, it increased one-time funding to the smaller CIGs by 12% and the larger CIGs by 6%, a similar sleight-of-hand. As you can see in the following chart, the inequity between the three highest-funded and three lowest-funded CIGs actually increased by $1.6 million dollars under the de Blasio 2017 and 2018 budgets; between the Metropolitan Museum (the top-funded CIG) and the Bronx County Historical Society (the lowest funded CIG) the inequity increased by $623,376.

PCP’s analysis of City Council’s Expense and Contract Budget Resolutions for the 2017 fiscal year

While we do not have the granular data for Fiscal Year 2019 for the lowest-funded institutions, we do have DCLA’s percentage figure (17.5% vs. 8%) along with figures for the increases of the top three recipients which show that the 8% increases for the Met, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) were $908,062, $879,505, and $848,473 respectively.

Based on DCLA statements in the Action Plan (Objective 1, Strategy A, Action 3), Cultural Development Fund (CDF) grantee increases were also based on a proportion of their existing funding, with higher proportional increases — not higher dollar increases — going to the less-funded organizations.  As shown in the chart above, higher proportional increases can actually result in smaller dollar increases for smaller organizations when the existing inequity is great. Thus, instead of increasing equity in the cultural budget, de Blasio has actually made the inequities worse in his budgets since 2017 — the exact opposite of the stated goal of CreateNYC.

The People’s Cultural Plan would welcome comprehensive data from the de Blasio administration disputing any information analyzed here. For example, a chart similar to the FY2015 chart, showing the change in total funding allocations by borough and neighborhood, and the change in total funding allocations broken down by institution size — including capital funding (which was not included in the FY15 chart). A true cultural plan would require DCLA to report annually on its progress. Two years after the CreateNYC, there is no ambition to share such information with the public.

Low ambition is the hallmark of CreateNYC. The People’s Cultural Plan called for ending the burdensome annual grant-cycle for the smaller CDF institutions, instead funding them through baselined operating support like the CIG. The action plan’s strategy “to offer more flexible and multi-year support” to small organizations instead listed the following as one of its successes: “extending the FY20 CDF application deadline from 6PM to midnight.” In other words, they have done nothing to change the fundamentals of the granting cycle, nor to reduce the complexity or length of the application itself, which is a significant burden for small organizations.

Before we discuss the progress on our other concerns (the housing crisis and labor equity for artists and cultural workers) it is worth stopping for a minute to analyze why de Blasio hasn’t made any progress on funding equity despite the rhetoric. Ultimately, the large CIGs have a stranglehold on power in the cultural sector, stemming from their boards of directors that include major capitalist power brokers, drawing heavily from the real estate industry. A naïve analysis would highlight the fact that these trustees are also major donors to de Blasio, and that de Blasio has taken huge amounts of real estate money — an industry invested in increasing property and land values, which drives inequity.

On deeper analysis, the decline of industrial production in New York City, combined with the rise of real estate to become 60% of the world’s assets, has meant that the city government has little choice but to direct nearly all policy toward increasing property values, which feeds city revenue through property taxes. Sam Stein’s book, Capital City, highlights the structural binds placed on city planners, and the resulting “capitalist-democracy contradiction”:

In a nominally democratic capitalist republic, the state and its planners have to perform a delicate balancing act: planners must proceed with enough openness and transparency to maintain public legitimacy, while ensuring that capital retains ultimate control over the processes’ parameters. The people must have their say, but their options must be limited. If the system is entirely opened up, people might demand the full socialization of land, the abolition of private property and all the rest. If the system is completely closed, however, they might revolt against an unjust and unaccountable government. Planners are therefore tasked with creating public processes that are open but rigged. From this capitalist-democracy contradiction arises the familiar landscape of ‘participatory planning’ — public comment periods, community boards, planning commissions, design charettes and a host of other interventions. (p.33)

That’s an apt description of CreateNYC. The People’s Cultural Plan advocated for more radical changes, such as popular control over-generous and equitably distributed public funds — as well as for eliminating de Blasio’s developer-friendly housing policies, items not likely to be considered by an administration dominated by real estate. That the consultants hired to work on the cultural plan in 2016 came largely from the real estate sector was the consequence of these structural realities.

Cultural policy has been subsumed under real estate development imperatives. DCLA reports to The New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC). The DCLA was moved from under Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris’ portfolio to the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, initially Alicia Glen, now Vicky Been. Ali Davis, the recently hired “Senior Advisor for Arts and Culture to the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development” (the position which directly oversees DCLA), was most recently the Chief of Staff of REBNY (the Real Estate Board of New York), before which she was an Assistant Vice President at the EDC under Bloomberg.

DCLA continues to direct significant capital funding to projects that have a net effect of increasing property values, and cultural institutions continue to artwash development projects While the SHED’s initial public funding allocation of $75 million dollars came from Bloomberg, the de Blasio administration has been excitedly promoting its opening over the last several months. More than $1.2 billion in public funds intended for poor neighborhoods were diverted to the ongoing development of Hudson Yards under de Blasio’s tenure, using gerrymandering practices that treated it as a part of Harlem.

The Action Plan’s strategies to “support living wages for artists and cultural workers” and “alternative models for artists and cultural organizations to acquire and operate affordable property and share resources” have been superficial. The accomplishment highlighted is the allocation of $13.9 million in capital funds for the development of only 209 units of affordable artist workspace. More disturbing is the partnership with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) with “three Brooklyn-based cultural organizations” (unnamed) to operate a facility in a “city-led affordable housing project” in Brownsville, Brooklyn (Action Plan p. 16).

Another accomplishment highlighted by DCLA has been its work on diversity in the cultural workforce. The requirement that CIGs adopt “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) plans, stemming from CreateNYC, has at least elevated the discourse in the city. However, beyond discourse, nothing is being done to address the structural causes of that lack of diversity.

Reports from CIG employees who wish to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, state that DEI plans created have been thoroughly watered down by boards of directors even in cases of vigorous staff advocacy, and that DCLA has had a very light touch, not actually requiring much to be enforced. Due to the federal EEOC employment policy preventing organizations from specifically hiring people of color, the actions of CIG institutions will be limited to more vigorous recruitment, and vaguely-defined improvements to “organizational culture.” Furthermore, DCLA’s threats to cut funding for lack of progress are empty. Despite prior comments about reducing funding to the MET in order to distribute some of that funding more equitably, the MET’s 2019 budget allocation was $27,454,185 (More than all the expense funding going to Queens and Staten Island combined in 2015). DCLA Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl recently admitted as much at a hearing this week.

While overt racism and implicit biases certainly play a role in limiting diversity at major institutions, the low proportion of people of color able to enter the field, resulting from historical exclusion and oppression, is a much greater factor. In the Labor Plank of the People’s Cultural Plan, we called for an investment of $142 million annually to address this problem across the city. A jobs program on that scale could at least make a dent in the problem.

However, funding investments toward DEI initiatives highlighted in the Action Plan amount to a total of only $1,500,560 over two years (Action Plan, pp 10-11). The bulk of this will go to fund low-paid internships for CUNY students, which is certainly beneficial for a few. Yet many CIGs have privately acknowledged that it will not have much of an effect since there are no new jobs available at the end of it.

While the city continues to do next to nothing to advance cultural equity, artists have continued to be active in anti-gentrification protests, and in developing alternative models of housing and property, such as Community Land Trusts (CLTs). Groups such as the Chinatown Arts Brigade, Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP), Take Back the Bronx, the Brooklyn Antigentrification Network, Mi Casa No Es Su Casa, the Movement to Protect the People, and many others have placed housing and gentrification at the center of the conversation in the world of arts and culture, including through numerous protests and actions this year alone. The many groups involved in anti-gentrification protests who joined the protests against Warren Kanders shows that our analysis is deepening and we are making connections across the different forms of our oppression. The victory against Amazon’s attempt to move to Queens was due in part to artist groups like ASAP, which put forward an “artists pledge” not to take money from Amazon, and to Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU), a group involving many Queens artists, which took a bold stance from the beginning.

People are organizing, and culture and the arts are an essential part. A people’s cultural plan is taking place all around us — as different groups build more power among themselves. This is what it will take to change the systems of oppression. True equity among all people is the foundation for cultural equity.

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