A book reading for children during the 2021 People's Festival in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood (photo by Corazon Aguirre and courtesy NYC's Department of Cultural Affairs)

In early March, New York Mayor Eric Adams released a blueprint for a plan to rebuild the city’s economy after two devastating years of COVID-19. Recognizing that arts and culture are key catalysts for the recovery of the city’s financial health, the plan announced a “Culture at Risk” response team to assist arts and nightlife businesses on the brink of closure and a “one-of-a-kind” cultural district on Governors Island.

Just a month earlier, however, the mayor released a preliminary budget for fiscal year 2023 that proposes slashing one-third of the city’s culture budget. So how does the mayor’s grandiose rhetoric about New York’s cultural comeback match up with his budgetary policy?

The “Rebuild, Renew, Reinvent” plan blueprint aims to “accelerate” NYC’s economic recovery through investment in the small business, tourism, and arts and culture sectors. With 400,000 jobs lost since the pandemic hit in 2020, the plan states restoring employment in the city to a “pre-pandemic level” as its primary goal.

As expected of Mayor Adams, who ran for office on a tough-on-crime platform, one of the prerequisites to “restarting the city’s economic engines” is tackling public safety concerns including gun violence and homelessness. The plan also calls on employees to return to in-person work, another message the mayor has pushed aggressively for months. In a style reminiscent of former President Donald Trump’s administration, the document is interspersed with flattering images of Adams shaking hands with workers and small business owners, posing for the camera holding signed paperwork, and overlooking the city’s skyline from a skyscraper window.

Backshot of NYC Mayor Eric Adams from “Renew, Rebuild, Reinvent: A Blueprint for New York City’s Economic Recovery” (screenshot)

New York’s arts sector was among the hardest hit during the pandemic, per a report by the state comptroller from last February. The report found that two-thirds of all arts, entertainment, and recreation jobs in the city vaporized in 2020. An even deeper crisis faces immigrant artists in the city, who report diminished livelihood sources with little to no aid from local authorities. 

In a survey of 643 community-based New York arts organizations conducted by Americans for the Arts and published by the think tank Center for an Urban Future (CUF) last year, one-quarter of all cultural organizations located in lower-income zip codes across the city reported losing access to their only physical space during the pandemic.

“The blueprint comes at an incredibly pivotal time for the arts,” said Eli Dvorkin, CUF’s editorial and policy director, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “We see, for example, that even as performing arts employment has been ticking back up in recent quarters, it’s still down about 36% from 2019.”

Dvorkin welcomed the proposals in the blueprint but expressed doubts as to whether they would be backed with sufficient funding. “There are some really positive things in this blueprint but not much of it will be possible without allocating some real funding behind it,” he said.

The city’s preliminary $98.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2023, unveiled in mid-February, focuses on slashing spending in favor of a record level of budget reserves. It allocates $145.5 million for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), down from $230.1 million in 2022. The $84.6 million cuts, which amount to 36.8% of the DCLA’s 2022 budget, include the loss of $12 million in one-time federal funding last year that was used to support the city’s $25 million WPA-style City Artist Corps program. Still, it’s a major hit for the DCLA, which would receive $72 million less in city funding in the coming fiscal year.

Meanwhile, the city’s Correction Department would enjoy a funding increase from about $800 million to $1.2 billion, and the New York Police Department’s budget would remain flat.

The DCLA, known as the country’s largest cultural funding agency, gets 99.8% of its financial support from the city. If approved, the 2023 budget would take away almost $57 million from the agency’s grantmaking funds, limiting its ability to continue supporting over 1,200 cultural organizations and thousands of individual artists in its constituency.

To further complicate matters, last week, Adams appointed Laurie Cumbo, a former council member with a history of racially insensitive remarks, to head the DCLA. Cumbo notoriously opposed legislation that grants noncitizens in the city the right to vote and has made controversial statements about NYC’s Asian and Jewish communities. Against this backdrop, the recovery plan blueprint commits to “fostering a diverse, equitable, and inclusive creative sector.”

In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the DCLA wrote: “In the Mayor’s preliminary budget proposal, the Department of Cultural Affairs continues to invest in our city’s cultural community while finding savings and efficiencies along with our colleagues across city government. There is no recovery for New York City without culture, and we look forward to working with all partners on the collaborative budget process in the months ahead.”

The city’s most ambitious plan for the arts in the blueprint is a 10-year initiative to build a cultural district on Governors Island, established in repurposed former military homes. The new complex will include exhibition spaces, offices, and will host an artist residency. The city is also poised to launch a “Governors Island Arts” campaign, announcing upcoming art installations, cultural events, and programming starting this summer.

The promised “Culture at Risk” response team will help arts organizations facing closure navigate government bureaucracy and secure financing assistance, according to the blueprint. The initiative is modeled on a similar program launched by the London City Hall in 2016 and expanded during the pandemic. In 202o, London City injected £2.3 million (~$3 million) into the program and has since saved hundreds of businesses and nonprofits from closing.

The blueprint also promises to reform the work of the DCLA’s Cultural Development Fund (CDF), its major grantmaking program. This includes allowing multi-year funding for all grantees; efforts to diversify the panel review process; ensuring equity in CDF funding criteria; and “exploring the possibility” of allowing funds to be used for general operating expenses. If implemented, these strategies could help small and mid-size arts organizations in the city that have long struggled to gain access to city funding.

Mayor Adams’s preliminary budget will have to go through a series of hearings and discussions in the NYC Council before it’s finally adopted in May or June.

“Every year, there’s a budget dance, where the mayor’s budget comes lower and city council puts money back in, and there’s usually a dramatic swing from the preliminary budget to the adopted budget at the end of the budget negotiations,” Dvorkin told Hyperallergic. “But this time around, it’s not clear at all that the DCLA would escape some pretty serious cuts.”

Editor’s Note 3/23/22, 1:14pm EDT: This article has been updated with a comment from a spokesperson for the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...