The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs hosted a borough-wide workshop for the general public at BRIC Arts Tuesday night as part of CreateNYC, a citywide push to parse the first comprehensive cultural plan for New York City.
The initiative was spawned from legislation signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in June 2015, which mandates the City analyze its cultural priorities, understand the needs of arts organizations and artists, and plan how the city can remain artist-friendly even as escalating rents displace low-income communities across the five boroughs.
As the nation’s biggest spender on arts and culture (second only to Chicago in per-capita spending), New York City is finally putting its money where its mouth is and the need for a comprehensive plan is self-evident, said Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl.
“This is a cultural plan for the city but the issues of gentrification and displacement definitely mix into the question.”
At each borough workshop, DCA, in partnership with nonprofit Hester Street Collaborative, will solicit feedback from the general public regarding their most prized cultural institutions in their neighborhoods, as well as their concerns and ideas for future improvements.
“One of the things that we’re doing in having these conversations is looking for patterns – patterns of issues, patterns of worries,” said Finkelpearl.
Lack of equity, affordability, access and citywide coordination emerged as common gripes over the course of the discussion. Participants sat at round tables and worked in groups over the course of an hour to ideate and discuss. At the center of the table was a map of Brooklyn. Each group was prompted to write down its favorite Brooklyn arts and culture venues on sticky notes tacked to their corresponding location on the map.
Sites like the Brooklyn Museum, Ford Amphitheater at the Coney Island Boardwalk and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden were popular picks, but many of the top choices were clustered in the North and Central Brooklyn, while southward neighborhoods like Gravesend, Canarsie, Dyker Heights and East New York were glaringly bereft.
“When I think of this plan, it’s exciting because it will help to make art more accessible and part of the community,” said Stephanie Hill Wilchfort, president and chief executive at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, which just opened a new outpost in one of four new cultural spaces at the Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Large, generously funded institutions of its ilk could buttress smaller ones by co-hosting events, she said, which the museum does at festivals like the annual Celebrate Earth Week. “There’s a huge opportunity to help these small organizations that need money and space.”
Another issue touched upon was the veneer of exclusivity cloaking hallowed institutions like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where theater performances are lavish affairs attended by the well-heeled.
“There are psychological barriers even if walking in the door doesn’t cost any money,” said Julia Gorton, a Brooklynite who teaches communication design at The New School in Manhattan. On the contrary, smaller arts organizations are overlooked for funding and often can’t afford competitive employee salaries or pay their interns, said Wilchfort. “There’s an expectation that these institutions are always going to run a on a shoestring.”
The hour allotted for the group discussion flew by, and each table then had to elect a volunteer to present the group’s ideas to the entire room. One group recommended implementing arts programming at community spaces within public housing projects – which often go unused – as a way to reduce inequity. Another proposed a centralized database for web users to obtain information on cultural events throughout the city, as well as expanding the availability of public flex space including stages, theaters, galleries, equipment and green spaces.
A steadfast supporter of quality arts education in public schools, Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, who serves Brooklyn’s 35th district, also known as the “cultural district,” warned of development projects that exploit the existing arts and culture scene of a neighborhood to drive up real estate value. “I’m so frustrated with some of the development projects that are happening here that advertise ‘Welcome to the cultural district’ […] but they invest nothing in the cultural life or vibrancy of the area,” Cumbo said, to enthused cheers. “They actually damage it by advertising it but not investing in it because it starts to dry us up.”
The timeline for CreateNYC is relatively fast-moving: after collecting feedback from New Yorkers through borough workshops, a dedicated website and social media channels, between March and June 2017 Hester Street Collaborative and the Department for Cultural Affairs will draft a recommendation plan combining research and public input.
Tuesday’s draft will be shared with the public for feedback. CreateNYC will present the final plan to the City Council for approval July 2017.
Through the spring of 2017, there will be more CreateNYC borough-wide workshops, focus groups, round table discussions, and community-based meetings convened by local organizations for the general public. To get involved and for more information, go here.