New York’s Cultural Plan Aims to Boost the Arts, and Diversity, in a Gentrifying City

But it is not without its critics.

Mayor Bill de Blasio at the unveiling of the New York Cultural Plan.

New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DLCA) has released CreateNYC, a wide-ranging plan to strengthen the city’s cultural infrastructure, and address the inequities that plague it. Considering New York’s status as a world capital of the arts, it’s notable that this is the Big Apple’s first-ever such plan. Other major cities and regions have formulated their own cultural development plans as early as the 1990s.

The project has been headed up by the city’s Cultural Affairs Commissioner, Tom Finkelpearl, along with council majority leader Jimmy Van Bramer, who boast that they’ve had the input of some 200,000 city residents via town halls and online comments.

As Mayor Bill de Blasio pointed out at a press conference Wednesday, the plan includes $18.5 million in new investments for arts and culture in the city.

Tom Finkelpearl, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Photo Henri Neuendorf.

Tom Finkelpearl, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Photo Henri Neuendorf.

“This is a defining day for my time as Commissioner,” said Finkelpearl at the press conference. “This is a new day for arts and culture.” But he went on to say that the plan takes a long view. “This plan,” he continued, “should be judged on what the cultural workforce looks like in five years.”

CreateNYC arrives amid rising rents citywide that threaten the livelihood of both artists and cultural institutions. The harsh realities of gentrification are often associated with an influx of artists and galleries, putting them in tension with often working-class residents and communities of color. Recent years have also brought a growing awareness of lack of diversity among both culture workers and audiences.

Among the just-unveiled plan’s notable aspects are that the city will demand that cultural organizations meaningfully diversify their staffs in order to secure city funding. The DLCA itself published a report in January 2016 that found, after a year of research, that the staff of New York’s cultural institutions were disproportionately white compared to the racial and ethnic makeup of the city’s population.

“Starting this year, we’re going to openly collect information on the demographic makeup of boards and staffs of cultural organizations, and we’re going to ask them to talk about their vision for continuing to make organizations more inclusive,” De Blasio declared. “This will be a factor in funding decisions by the city going forward because it’s important to insure, if we’re investing public money, that these organizations represent everyone and include everyone. Next year, we’re going to have each organization submit a diversity plan with measurable goals for how they’re going to continue to make progress. We do this because we believe in fairness.”

New York's first cultural plan, released today.

New York’s first cultural plan, released today.

Weighing in at some 175 pages, CreateNYC boosts a host of initiatives to increase access of the arts, promote diversity among the staff of cultural institutions, and to increase accessibility for those with disabilities and those who speak a language other than English. It even aims to reduce carbon emissions coming from the buildings that house cultural institutions.

For individual artists, the plan promises better support, noting that some 40 percent of artists say that they have trouble even affording art supplies.

“We all know the history of the ‘starving artist’ who waited tables, but they could find a place to live that’s pretty cheap so they could pursue their dreams,” De Blasio said. “That’s gotten harder and harder, [when it comes to finding] living places and the places to do the work of an artist. So you’ll see in this program a focus on affordable workspaces for artists.”

The Cultural Plan touts De Blasio’s Affordable Real Estate for Artists (AREA) initiative, and promises that, “City-owned spaces will be leveraged to include affordable artist workspaces,” mentioning specifically “libraries, plazas, parks, and schools.” For hard-pressed cultural venues, it promises that “[r]eal estate readiness training and resource pooling will support the long-term sustainability of cultural organizations. ”

The plan is not without its critics. Also weighing in this week is a consortium of organizations of artists and culture workers, who held a standing-room only event Tuesday night at New York nonprofit Artists Space and have released their own People’s Cultural Plan (PCP).

The PCP is a much more concise at 17 pages. Organizers say that they were inspired by suspicions that the City’s public “listening sessions” for its Cultural Plan were purely symbolic, and that real estate interests had too much influence on the De Blasio administration.

Between the two plans, some of the goals of rebalancing cultural funding outside of Manhattan and increasing diversity appear similar. Indeed, the City’s plan even cites the PCP directly on page 145: “Artists Are Tenants First.”

However, the PCP takes a harder line on real estate, among other things: “We demand a plan that calls for the elimination of… pro-developer policies and rezonings, for an immediate rent freeze, and for the development of more just rent control policies at the State and City levels.”

It argues that the tidal wave of rezonings unleashed by De Blasio, while sold as a way to secure affordable housing, are set to trigger further development and displacement. It points out that other initiatives supported by De Blasio, like the Brooklyn-Queens Connector street car, are to be paid for explicitly by the rising property values that they bring. The PCP makes the case that artists should oppose such initiatives.

“The DCLA Cultural Plan acknowledges the affordability crisis that is affecting artists and cultural organizations throughout the city, and that is certainly a good thing,” said PCP member Jenny Dubnau, an artist who spoke on Tuesday night, in an email to artnet News. “My concern, though, is that the Plan doesn’t offer anywhere near the amount of concrete assistance that working artists need to survive: the Affordable Real Estate for Artists (AREA) initiative which is touted by the plan will only offer, according to the DCLA website, 1,500 units of affordable housing and a mere 500 units of affordable workspace, and this is over a 10-year timespan. Clearly, this is not an adequate response to the extreme crisis in which working artists and small arts organizations find themselves.”

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