Culture Crackdown

The mayor unveils a new weapon for the war on arts funding

Rudy Giuliani thinks it's perfectly kosher to hand over $11 million in city money for a new wing of the Museum of Jewish Heritage that will house Steven Spielberg's Holocaust archives— no shock, really, since he's already vying with Governor George Pataki for future Jewish campaign contributions. But supporting local arts and cultural groups, the mayor says, is "political pork."

That's how Giuliani dismissed some 450 independent theaters, museums, dance companies, and other organizations when he unveiled his new budget, which proposes cutting 65 percent of the Department of Cultural Affairs grants to these groups. Such extreme numbers didn't come as a surprise to anyone in the arts community, which has endured nonstop hostility from the professed opera queen ever since he took office. But there's a new danger lurking within this year's proposal: in addition to his annual slashing of funds— which the City Council typically restores— the mayor wants to impose damaging new restrictions on the pittance that the DCA does give out.

"In line with the Administration's emphasis on accountability and private responsibility," the budget proposal scolds, "the City will be revising the way it provides funding" to cultural groups. Specifically, it will require that groups raise a growing percentage of their funds from private sources in order to receive any city grants.

But arts groups are already tapping out private donors, who have said that they will not and cannot fill in gaps left by further government cuts. "It's difficult to see the mayor's proposal as anything other than punitive," concludes Sandra Pérez, executive director of the Association of Hispanic Arts, echoing the reaction to the budget of dozens of city arts executives who spoke to the Voice.

"Does Giuliani think we're leeches?" asks Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience, which produces classical plays and runs drama workshops in city schools. "Can he really think that people work in nonprofit arts groups to live high off the fat? What is the political message in this? Who is he trying to appease?"

One answer has to be the Republican National Committee. As Giuliani positions himself for higher office, he continues to run against the city of New York, blaring those accountability and responsibility buzzwords. And as the 10-year Republican clampdown on the National Endowment for the Arts has shown, the arts are a powerful wedge for attacking the very principle of public funding.

At the same time, Giuliani's city arts policy has always favored large, tourist-attracting institutions at the expense of smaller groups. Indeed, though the budget proposes a 12.5 percent cut to the 34 mostly large institutions that operate out of city-owned buildings, it also offers renovation grants to the tune of $65 million for MOMA, $18 million for Lincoln Center, and $25 million for the Metropolitan Museum, among others, to "enhance our position as the cultural capital of the nation and encourage more tourism." But this strategy, arts advocates warn, not only disregards the intrinsic value of smaller groups, it also ignores the ecology of New York culture. "Cut out a dance program in Bed-Stuy," explains Brooklyn City Council member Herbert Berman, "and you lose tomorrow's Alvin Ailey company."

Berman vows that the City Council will win back DCA funding, which amounted to roughly $108 million last year, but resents what he calls the "annual charade" in which the mayor uses the DCA cuts to set up what he claims is a give-back when he battles the council over subsidies for other vital services. "We're tempted to call the mayor's bluff," Berman adds, "to say, 'Up yours, we're not going to restore it, so now what are you going to do?' the way we did last year on recycling pickups, but it would be too traumatizing to the cultural institutions."

Many of them are traumatized as it is, especially because it's not yet clear whether the council will be able to beat back the new restrictions on DCA grants. They require that groups raise 25 percent of their budgets through private funds next year, which virtually all of them are already doing, and 50 percent in 2001, which will be devastating to the city's smallest groups and to those serving the poorest neighborhoods. "We're making 25 percent now, but just barely, after more than 20 years," says Kathryn Giaimo, administrative director of the 75-seat Thalia Spanish Theatre in Sunnyside, Queens. "You don't exactly get sponsorship from Lexus at a theater like ours."

More troubling, the mayor's dictate doesn't explain what he means by private funds. If the definition includes only corporate, individual, and foundation grants— and not earned income, such as ticket sales— few theaters will meet the hurdle. And what about income groups earn by bringing cultural programs into the public schools (often through the mayor's much touted ProjectArts initiative)? Will the mayor regard this payment for contracted services as government funding?

Besides, say arts administrators, the mayor's proposal runs completely against its stated aim by sending a negative signal to private funders. According to Mary Anne Mrozinski, executive director of the King Manor Museum— the home from 1805 to 1827 of Rufus King, a signer of the constitution— "when private funders perceive a lack of commitment from the city, they begin to wonder." Even though the museum already raises more than half its $150,000 budget from private sources, "That negative message is a big worry for us."

The symbolic and material importance of such funding— minuscule though it is for many groups— may best be measured by the dozens of arts executives who declined to speak for the record, fearful that they would be shut out of the city's coffers entirely if they criticized the mayor. "We have no comment on the budget," quips Christine Williams, development director of Bang on a Can, which promotes and produces new music. "We don't want to walk into our office tomorrow and find that Giuliani has turned it into a homeless shelter."

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