Starving artists no more! Thirteen East Village cultural organizations are now the proud owners of six buildings and two vacant lots. Known as Fourth Arts Block (FAB), the groups purchased the buildings from the city for $1 apiece. The sale, initiated by Councilmember Margarita Lopez, marks the creation of what she’s dubbed the “East 4th Street Cultural District.”
Four of the buildings have been occupied by cultural organizations for years, but group members always feared that they would lose their spaces to rising rents or luxury housing. “Councilwoman Lopez did a lot of work under the Giuliani administration to keep the buildings from being sold out from under us,” says Ryan Gilliam, chairperson of FAB. Now these spaces, as a part of the sale, will house nonprofit cultural organizations in perpetuity.
FAB will use the property for performances, workshops, classes for adults and children, and rehearsals. They will also create theaters for Teatro Circulo and Instituto de Arte Teatral Internacional, the first Latino theater companies in the city to own their stages. Lopez hopes that besides enriching the neighborhood, the cultural experiences of the district will stimulate the neighborhood’s economy. “We wanted to create a magnet to attract people to spend dollars in the community,” she says.
FAB isn’t the first group of arts organizations to garner the city’s help. New York City has the largest arts budget of any city in the nation, funding more than 600 programs. It also acts as landlord, leasing city-owned property for artistic ends. BAM Local Development Corporation, for example, has renovated several city-owned sites along with private ones. “The city is a partner,” says Lee Silberstein, executive vice president of the Marino Organization, the public relations firm that represents BAM LDC. “There’s a complicated set of leases.”
As owners, FAB members may have an easier time, but they still aren’t quite official. “We have landmark districts, we have historical districts, but we actually don’t have cultural districts,” says Gilliam. That may be changing. At the state level, two pieces of pending legislation would create New York State Cultural Development Areas. Put forward by State Senator Serphin Maltese and Assemblyman Joseph Morelle, the bills would make arts businesses in these districts eligible for tax incentives. Meanwhile, Lopez is drafting legislation at the city level that would offer similar incentives while protecting cultural organizations from being pushed out.
Not everyone supports the idea. “If I don’t pay taxes, a tax credit won’t help me,” says Norma Munn, chairperson of the New York City Arts Coalition, explaining that nonprofits do not pay the types of taxes the legislation abates. “Cultural districts are not first and foremost about improving the entire neighborhood,” she said. “They’re first and foremost about creating art.”