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Bill Seeking to Democratize New York City Cultural Funding Gains Steam

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Yesterday’s hearing on the Cultural Plan bill initially proposed by Jimmy Van Bramer (second from right) and Stephen Levin (far right) (image courtesy Jimmy Van Bramer)

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” mantra doesn’t just apply to voters. New York’s iconic arts institutions have done well for themselves under the Bloomberg administration as smaller groups and individual artists say they have struggled.

But many arts and civic leaders see an opportunity in direct the new mayor’s policies by establishing a master plan to guide the growth of the arts.

A myriad of arts organizations strongly supported a bill that called for the development of a cultural plan influencing how city agencies distribute arts funding at a City Council hearing in Manhattan on Tuesday.

“New York is seen as the cultural capital of the world and much of that is due to Broadway and Off Broadway,” Arts & Business Council of New York’s Karen Leiding said, during her testimony. “We were doing so well that maybe people thought of focusing on different priorities.”

Arts organizations had two major concerns throughout the hearing — the distribution of resources to groups serving communities of color and underserved neighborhoods, and possible cuts to arts endeavors should the city enter a period of fiscal austerity.

“We want you to address issues of cultural inequity and look to supporting those who have been historically disenfranchised,” Arts & Democracy director Caron Atlas said. “And we don’t want to have this conversation only among artists, we want to have a conversation in these communities. We need culture built into that.”

The city’s next budget will not get finalized until the middle of next year and City Council typically holds budgetary hearings to discuss department priorities in March.

The Department of Cultural Affairs, the city’s main spigot of funding for the arts, has an annual budget of about $150 million and is planning to spend another $685 million in capital projects.

But many arts leaders who testified noted that other agencies at the city, state, and federal level could be tapped for funding if a cultural plan identifies the needs and government officials find the right match.

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, a former Queens Arts Council member and, along with Stephen Levin, the bill’s main sponsor, hopes to hold another hearing after compiling testimony. He anticipates passing the bill early next year.

Van Bramer did not say how much the cultural plan would cost. Council sources put the proposal in the $1 to $2 million range but Van Bramer promised it would be “budget neutral” and that the new administration would understand the arts industry’s needs in a competitive environment.

“We don’t want to lose a step, we don’t want to lose an edge, we don’t want to lose artists to other cities that may be playing hardball,” he said.

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