NYC city council majority leader and chairman of cultural affairs committee, Jimmy Van Bramer.

NYC Reconsiders Focus of Municipal Arts Funding

According to a report by Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his lieutenants are reexamining the city’s $178 million arts budget and other cultural resources with an aim toward strengthening smaller institutions in disadvantaged neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. The anticipated release of the city’s first “cultural plan,” with its emphasis on greater equity in the allocation of funds, has some major arts organizations afraid of cuts to their own operations.

The mayor’s team is due to submit their plan to the city council by July 1, but next week city officials will release a summary of the views of some twenty thousand residents who have commented about culture during public meetings on the proposed plan over the last year across the boroughs. The majority leader of the city council and the chairman of its cultural affairs committee, Jimmy Van Bramer, said he helped create legislation for the plan in order to establish “more funding opportunities for small, emerging, community-based, nonprofit cultural organizations.”

Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, has addressed concerns that the new deal may hurt larger groups that have traditionally received more funding: “There will be something that says there are parts of New York City that are under-resourced, and that’s going to be something we want to address . . . It’s also going to say that there is great recognition on the part of this administration of the value of major cultural institutions. These are very important, not just for tourism—which we do care about—but also to the spirit of the city.”

City Center is one of the thirty-three arts groups in city-owned buildings, on city-owned land, or both, all of which make up the Cultural Institutions Group, a consortium of organizations that collectively receive about 63 percent of the $178.3 million municipal arts budget. “The support we receive from the city is essential for us to carry out our responsibilities as caretakers of this exquisite landmark building that houses one of New York City’s preeminent cultural institutions,” said Arlene Shuler, City Center’s president and chief executive.

The Met Museum currently receives the largest annual allocation, with $26 million—just a fraction of the $332 million annual operating budget for the financially fraught institution—while the Bronx County Historical Society receives the lowest figure at $184,072. The remaining 37 percent of the budget is distributed through a competitive application process among nearly one thousand organizations that are not located in or on city property. The Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in southeast Queens is one such institution—it will depend on the city to cover about half of its $1.3 million operating costs next year. Cathy Hung, the executive director of the center, said, “We are what the cultural plan is all about . . . In this neighborhood, we don’t have the private resources—I don’t have the corporations and foundations and individuals.” She added, “However you flip the coin, we are always on the wrong side.”

But larger museums are also feeling the pinch: “What is needed is more money—there is simply not enough,” said Karen Brooks Hopkins, president emeritus of the Brooklyn Academy of Music who serves on the citizens’ advisory committee that was appointed by the mayor to consult on the cultural plan. “These are large institutions, they have huge expenses.” She added, “It’s not about fighting over crumbs, it’s about expanding the pot.”

Efforts to increase arts funding across the board in New York City are already underway: Last year the city used a $10 million increase in the culture budget to give smaller arts organizations a 12 percent increase and larger ones a 6 percent increase. City and arts officials say that the current funding formula lacks clear criteria or consistency, though. Funding has been determined on a case-by-case basis as arts organizations joined the Cultural Institutions Group.

Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, which financed the new cultural plan’s research, has defended the notion of redistributing funds, saying that “larger organizations have more capacity to raise private funds” compared with arts groups “in low-income communities of color and in places like Staten Island.” He continued, “If culture in New York only means large, rich organizations, then we lose the lifeblood, which are the small, innovative, entrepreneurial, off-the-beaten track kind of organizations with small budgets that the city should also be funding . . . If it’s not possible for those organizations to thrive anymore, New York will have all of the features of an unequal city.”