The swearing-in ceremony, on February 5, for the new cultural affairs commissioner, Kate Levin, brought an encouraging boost to small nonprofit arts organizations. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the main room at Gracie Mansion, a few hundred representatives of the city’s diverse field of arts and culture, many of whom had not been invited there in eight years, appreciated the mayor’s invitation as a long-overdue gesture of inclusion. And possibly more financial support.
“[Levin] and the mayor made a point of saying that they wanted to help the smaller organizations that often got bypassed because we weren’t considered commercial entities, and that they both felt our endeavors worthwhile and made a substantial contribution to the culture of New York,” said Ellen Stewart, executive director of La Mama E.T.C., after the event. “I think they both were very sincere.”
Sandra Perez, executive director of the Association of Hispanic Arts, sensed optimism that Levin has a “clearer understanding that [we’ve had] to struggle for every penny that has come into our coffers. And that’s different from the last administration.”
It is a relief shared by many disgruntled arts administrators who have long felt overshadowed by the last mayor’s preoccupation with a select group of tourist-oriented cultural institutions. For once, they feel they can discuss more frankly the inequities that have plagued DCA funding for years.
Dialogue has become especially critical because, according to a recent study by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) released November 2001, a staggering 72 percent of the city’s 2000-plus organizations receive little or no city funding. The Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), the agency that oversees the city’s support for nonprofit arts and culture organizations, is locked into a funding structure that supports a fairly elite 28 percent of the city’s “visual, literary, and performing arts” presenters, as well as zoos, botanical gardens, and historical societies. The structure leaves no room at the table for the vast majority. Smaller organizations and emergent groups, particularly in communities outside of Manhattan, can spend years trying to get on the DCA radar.
Currently, an estimated 85 percent of DCA’s funding (in 2001 that was $109 million) goes to the Cultural Institutions Group, a list of 35 wealthy, politically powerful institutions that draw thousands of visitors, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the American Museum of Natural History, and some lower-profile, community-based institutions like El Museo del Barrio, the Staten Island Historical Society, and the Jamaica Arts Center. Just before Giuliani departed from office, he added the Police Museum.
The remaining 15 percent (about $18 million in 2001) is disbursed to line-item allocations—yearly contracts for 200 non-CIGs, a subset of Programs Groups, which according to the NYFA report, “range from the Queens Symphony Orchestra to the Whitney Museum of American Art. . . . ” A small portion of this (about $6 million in 2001) is available to one-time competitive awards, given to groups who aren’t guaranteed DCA funding. In all, the DCA estimates that it supports nearly 600 organizations.
Calling the system “calcified,” “unwieldy,” and “frozen,” Levin admits that the budget process is responding inadequately to the growing cultural landscape. And the result has been the creation of a “second-class citizen status” within the field.
Recent research provides dramatic statistical evidence of DCA funding disparities according to prominence and size. For example, Alliance for the Arts found that in the late’90s smaller organizations, which rely most on city funding because of lower ticket sales and smaller private donations, suffer the deepest cuts when DCA’s budget is reduced. Conversely, says Alliance’s president Randall Bourscheidt, institutions with large admissions revenue and hefty endowments often receive the most city support, even though it makes up only a fraction of their overall budget. They also receive the smallest cuts.
That so many organizations must compete for scarce crumbs is what rankles some about the last-minute inclusion of the Police Museum into the CIGs. Bill Aguado, director of the Bronx Council on the Arts says that this “playing politics with cultural money” typified the Giuliani administration, and he is hopeful that things will be different now.
Levin suggests they will when she says, “The strategies we develop are not about pitting institutions in groups of different sizes against each other. We love them all.” Nevertheless, the funding issues remain political and arcane, and she knows it. This was the case years ago when Levin helped to keep DCA running under Diane M. Coffey, former mayor Koch’s chief of staff, after the resignation of then commissioner Bess Meyerson. When asked about leveling the 85/15-percent dichotomy, for instance, Levin simply states that “the DCA has a mission which is to fund [CIGs]. So it’s not as if the agency’s budget can be re-envisioned from the top down.”
Mark Russell, artistic director of P.S.122, a performance space in a former public school building, offers a more transparent explanation. “These CIGs have major political support. They employ their own lobbyists, so it’s hard to move that. The board of the Met, just imagine that!”
Likewise, the system of line-item allocations seems to be another sacred cow. Even though some are lines dedicated to extinct entities, the DCA is unable to remove them, or to rotate funds to cash-starved groups. Only a complicated electoral process that few seem to understand can dissolve this cemented structure, which was designed by the Board of Estimate, another extinct entity.
Levin aims to find “pockets of flexibility,” for the underfunded—in the one-time grants, for instance—to get around restrictions, as well as to lend technical assistance, and perhaps interdepartmental collaboration that might provide low-cost real estate. She also hopes that private-public partnerships will result in a “better articulated and more sensitive notion of economic development” which is not just “calibrated to organizations that bring in tourist bucks.”
Laura Jean Watters, director of the Council on the Arts and Humanities for Staten Island, thinks that Levin sees culture “not as an elitist proposition but from the grassroots.” Others point to her personal experiences—theater director, professor, arts administrator, and wife of an artist, Mark di Suvero, a sculptor and founder of the Socrates Sculpture Garden in Long Island City—as testaments to her commitment to art from the ground up.
In any case, Bloomberg’s financial plan has cut 15 percent from DCA’s budget, and it remains to be seen whether the new chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, City Councilman Jose Serrano Jr., will get the votes to restore any of it, or how cuts will be apportioned. In the last budget modification, the council restored 100 percent to the Program Groups line while letting the CIGs take a several-million-dollar hit—but that was before 9-11.
In the meantime, small nonprofits, being the long-distance runners that they are, press on. According to Ginny Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres, the small nonprofits have what seems a good start with the new commissioner, and can try to use the economic downturn to return to their essential missions.
Sandra Perez calls their new attitude “cautious optimism.” In fact, for some, like Ellen Stewart, it’s old wisdom. “Like my papa Diamond told me,” says Ellen Stewart, “I have to push my own pushcart.”