Agenda Item: Keeping the Arts Alive

Downtown artists, avid practitioners of America's vaunted "freedom of expression," have perhaps the most to lose in the more restricted environment looming before us in 2002. They have already taken financial hits, with two of the city's primary incubator spaces, P.S. 122 and HERE, reporting losses equal to 10 percent of their operating budgets. Audiences are smaller: Early fall, before the big-name series open at BAM and elsewhere, is usually a bonanza for the smaller spaces, and this season the very streets leading to their doors were closed. P.S. 122 had no phone or e-mail service for weeks after September 11, and wound up throwing its doors open to everyone, giving tickets to rescue workers and requesting donations instead of full tariffs. Both Mark Russell, the space's longtime director, and Kristin Marting of HERE are cutting programs; Russell has had to lay off staff. Are they seeing, yet, artistic response to the events of September? "There's no easy answer," says Russell. "I think it will take a while before people will be able to formulate real artistic responses. The grieving and anger happened in public statements and demonstrations. The deeper investigations will take some time to come out."

Elise Bernhardt, executive director at the Kitchen, observes that the government formulated the Works Progress Administration in the '30s and CETA in the '70s, using artists to address social and economic crises. "The arts are more important than ever," she says. "We need to think about policy. In 2002, it's time for a program that really integrates artists into the fabric of American life. In the name of war, the government is stripping away democracy to something we'll find barely recognizable; artists are going to become more important in exposing that and running up against it. Concurrently, because of the recession, people are going to marginalize the arts, call them a frill. It's happening everywhere. We have to get to the table, to be in the middle of the conversation, making the case not just amongst artists but with decision makers. The arts are critical to the society we live in."

 
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