A mural in Harlem, New York by Sergio Alexis Perez (via Shaun Dawson/Flickr)

In a virtual roundtable this earlier week, New York lawmakers heard bleak reports and urgent pleas for funding from leaders of arts organizations across the state. The online meeting, held by the NY Senate Standing Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation on Wednesday, October 21, discussed the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the arts with testimonies by more than a dozen experts from the cultural sector.

“The previous federal aid package proved to be insufficient for the arts,” said Senator José M. Serrano, chair of the committee, in an opening statement. “The federal CARES act only signaled out $75 million of $2 trillion in total aid to cultural institutions via the NEA, of which New York state received only $7 million.”

The senators sought suggestions for legislative initiatives but clarified that their ability to offer financial relief is limited. Senator Liz Kruger, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, put it the starkest terms: “It’s not realistic that the state is going to have money to pour into the art sector any time soon.”

Eli Dvorkin, Editorial and Policy Director of the think-tank Center for an Urban Future, presented findings from the center’s research on the economic impact of the pandemic on artists and art organizations in New York.

According to Dvorkin, employment in the New York art sector was at an all-time high before the pandemic hit. “The state was home to just under 63,000 jobs in the performing arts and spectator sports last year — up 22 percent over the past decade,” he said. “More than 20,000 New Yorkers were employed in museums, a 20 percent jump since 2009.”

A screenshot of the virtual roundtable held by the New York Senate Standing Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation

That all changed when closures of art institutions began in March. “New York State has lost nearly 32,000 jobs in the performing arts compared to the same time last year, a 50 percent decline,” Dvorkin said. “The state has also lost more than 4,400 jobs in museums — down nearly 22 percent from last year.”

Dvorkin reported a disproportionate impact on small and mid-sized arts organizations, saying that such entities project losses up to 50% or more of their annual operating budgets.

“Although larger cultural institutions are also facing stunning losses, many smaller cultural groups — including many immigrant-run and -serving organizations — don’t have the benefit of endowments or large donor bases to help cushion the blow,” Dvorkin said.

Working artists, Dvorkin added, “have lost more than half of their income and now face the likelihood of a year or more of canceled projects and likely unemployment.”

Dvorkin urged state leaders to pass a “Works Progress Administration–style program” legislation that would hire out-of-work artists; allow performance venues to open with restrictions; and provide technical and financial support for safe indoor activities, among other recommendations. “It’s possible to do something fairly small and targeted in the absence of federal funding,” he said.

Erika Sanger, Executive Director of the Museums Association of New York, a body that represents 1,400 museums across the state, called for allowing admission beyond the capacity limit of 25% when possible.

“Museums were already one of the cleanest indoor public building environment,” Sanger said, adding that safety and cleanliness were dramatically improved with the pandemic.

According to Sanger, New York museums suffered 10% of the national impact on museums. “At the height of the pandemic, New York’s museums were losing $3.5 million a day,” she said. “We’re are looking at an unbelievable impact that we cannot make up for.”

Sanger also provided a breakdown of the amount of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that museums across the state have received, saying that while 81,00 PPP loans were distributed to businesses in New York, only 142 went to museums, and 76 were under $150,000.

PPP loans protected 7,062 jobs across the state (of which 5,338 were in NYC), and yet, museums across the state have cut about 4,000 jobs in total.

“We’ve lost the most diverse and technologically advance workforce,” Sanger said. “It’s a loss that will be felt for years and years to come.”

El Museo del Barrio in Harlem, New York (via Wikimedia Commons)

Anna Chireno, Director of Community Affairs at El Museo del Barrio in Harlem, reported that the museum expects to lose $1.6 million, approximately 30% of its annual budget.

Despite its precarious finances, the small museum, which does not have an endowment, has not furloughed or laid off any of its workers. The federal loan, increased support from trustees, and emergency funds from the Latinx community have helped the museum to stay afloat, but Chireno said that “a long term panorama is bleak and uncertain.”

“East Harlem and Harlem had some of the highest COVID rates in Manhattan,” Chireno said, adding that the virus has “brought historic inequities in high relief.”

“When you fund the arts, you really fund the community,” she continued, urging the state to reach into its pocket.

The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) in Harlem, which closed on March 13, remains shuttered due to dried-up funds. Melody Capoti, Executive Director of CCCADI, delivered a searing testimony.

Capoti called for an “equitable and just” distribution of cultural funds, calling the current situation “taxation without representation.”

“We’ve seen our culture robbed from us, only to find it on display somewhere in a 5th Avenue museum,” she said.

Capoti urged the lawmakers to establish a special fund for organizations of color and called on the large cultural institutions of NYC to each contribute $1 million of their budgets to such a program. “Our community needs you to put your money where your words are,” Capoti told the senators.

“We are not looking forward to things going back to normal, as normal was never good for communities of color,” Capoti said. “Many of the organizations of color will not survive this lockdown. Many have already seen their demise.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...