The annual budget dance between the Bloomberg administration and New York City’s publicly-funded art institutions has become something of a sad tradition. “There were several years where things were much easier,” NYC Arts Coalition chairwoman Norma Munn recalls to AFC. But “things have gotten much worse” this year, Munn says, as the mayor’s office has again attempted to slash the budget of the Department of Cultural Affairs, the government agency responsible for city support of the 34 Cultural Institution Groups and hundreds of nonprofit arts groups that Munn represents. For many of the arts’ largest supporters, this year’s budget dance is more than just a fight to restore funding to the DCA. The process itself has become the enemy, and its threat to New York’s homegrown art has become all too real.
This tension was on stark display when the City Council’s Cultural Affairs and Libraries Committee, led by Council Member James Van Bramer, assembled to discuss the Bloomberg administration’s DCA budget for the year in mid-March. The DCA proposed a $94 million budget for their next fiscal year, a cut of nearly 40% from last year’s budget of $152 million. Bloomberg’s Executive Budget, which goes up for vote on Thursday, raises the budget to $103 million, with the added funds exclusively supporting energy costs for the CIGs—flagship institutions such as MoMA PS1, the Brooklyn Museum, and the New York Botanical Gardens who benefit from the city’s generous funding and affordable leases.
While funding for institutional art only sees a 25% cut in the Executive Budget, support for new artists through the Cultural Development Fund is to be cut far more deeply. The DCA has allocated only $15.6 million for cultural programs, a reduction of almost 60% from last year’s $36.4 million. That money sponsors organizations like apexart and Flux Factory who directly support artists by commissioning and providing studio and exhibition space. Flux Factory’s Christina Vassallo argues that DCA funding allows them the freedom to support “the creation of new works that are not commercially oriented by artists lacking [widespread awareness,]” no easy task for an organization that prides themselves on paying all of their sponsored artists. Cybele Maylone, Operations Director at apexart, commends the Cultural Development Fund for giving them the tools “to fund and support [ambitious and experimental exhibitions] we couldn’t normally do. [Losing DCA funding] is scary to think about… it would mean cutting across all our programs” by slashing the scope of exhibitions and residencies and undermining their ability to pay honorariums to artists and curators. “We’d have to divide our resources and energy,” notes Vassallo, echoing the sentiment. “The scope of everything gets drawn back. We’ve grown a lot over the years; stepping back now would benefit no one.”
Worse, the protracted budget dance between Bloomberg and the City Council places an unnecessary strain on these cultural groups by breeding uncertainty. “[The budget dance] destabilizes the planning process of many organizations,” Munn argues, observing that the city’s inability to commit to its own budget leaves many groups who are reliant on city funding unable to make long-term plans. Artists and institutions’ antipathy towards the budget dance is especially concerning to Munn. “Long term, people don’t stay in this sector,” she testified in March, citing the unemployment scare many arts groups suffer annually, to say nothing of their inability to re-hire or increase their employees’ wages. “None of this bodes well for the long-term health of arts groups…We need to employ these people and provide venues for their work.”
It’s likely the City Council will fully restore the DCA’s funding, as they have done every year since 2008. Last year’s $152 million budget was only obtained after protests forced the Mayor’s office to restore over $48 million that was to be cut. Yet many activists fear what New York Public Library CEO Anthony Marx, testifying in March, referred to as “the demoralization that is imposed [by] the threat of losing not just your livelihood, but something you are passionate about.” There are, of course, extenuating circumstances: Munn admits that she cannot hold Bloomberg fully accountable for the city’s skyrocketing real estate and standard-of-living costs that have priced many artists out of even the outermost boroughs. But it is evident that, as Munn puts it, the Mayor’s office “uses the arts as a political football,” constantly seeking to devalue the city’s investment. It’s not clear why: according to testimony from the Arts & Business Council of New York in March, cultural tourism accounted for $3 billion in direct spending on the arts in 2010, a significant return on the city’s $148 million investment.
What is clear, however, is that the Mayor’s ambivalence towards one of New York’s most culturally important and financially viable investments is taking its toll. “We’ve already seen a diminution,” Munn laments, as older, established artists leave the city with less and less new blood coming to replace them. “We forgot that you build… on the artistic talent that comes here [to] create a life.” “We’re really committed to honorariums because we understand that artists… struggle with the costs of living in New York,” notes Maylone, who has seen this struggle firsthand in many of apexart’s resident artists. “I think it’s daunting [for many artists] coming from the Middle East and Asia. We have to caution our residents that [without extra income] the rate-of-living can be stifling.” An inability to attract and retain talent is especially dangerous when, as DCA commissioner Kate Levin noted in March, “cultural tourism is the backbone of the city’s overall budget.” It is this new lifeblood that encourages these tourists to come back.
Though Bloomberg may be averse to more generous support of the arts, other cities have expressed a great interest in fostering that talent. Munn worries that New York may soon find itself no longer the most globally competitive city. Chicago and San Francisco continue to eagerly support their own art communities, and Singapore has set its sights on superseding New York as a cultural capital in the near future.
“The competitive edge of New York City is not to be treated lightly,” Munn concluded during March’s testimony. If artists really are the city’s “problem solvers”, as she and many others believe, it behooves Bloomberg and his successors to abandon the budget dance and ensure that these artists and institutions continue to do what they do best: create, experiment, and earn the city valuable revenue in the process.