The fight for federal arts funding is crucial to the well-being of New York organizations and the national arts ecology. The proposal to cut funding to thirty-three cultural organizations making up the city’s Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) in the finalized department breakdowns for the Fiscal Year 2018 budget, due out the week of June 12th, would be a great blow to the arts in NYC. We, The People’s Cultural Plan, demand two things from the city: that funding equity be achieved citywide through significant increases to the DCLA budget and innovations in policy, and that our institutions truly represent who we are – a diverse city of people of color. Moreover, we demand no reduction in funding to CIGs.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio inherited a city budget in which the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the MET) receives more annual funding (more than $24 Million) from the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) than all of the arts and cultural organizations in the boroughs of Queens and Staten Island combined. Overall, the FY2015 budget for DCLA, unchanged from Mayor Bloomberg’s last baselined budget, distributed $45 per capita in cultural dollars to Manhattan, ten times the funding going to Queens ($4.58). Just thirty-three out of the 1,000 or so cultural organizations funded (the members of the city’s Cultural Institutions Group, or CIG) received 77 percent of the total funding.
This budget reflected the priorities of the Bloomberg administration: an emphasis on the elite, Euro-centric cultural organizations based in Manhattan that have played a significant role in the centering of whiteness in our collective cultural lives, and excluded the voices and perspectives of people of color, who make up a majority of New Yorkers.
Yet, when Mayor de Blasio had the opportunity to live up to his promise of creating a fairer city for all, his first increase to the DCLA budget exacerbated Bloomberg-era inequity by allowing 6 percent of the $10 million increase to go to a single intuition (the MET) and the top six (6) recipients to receive nearly 28 percent of the funds intended for 1,000 organizations in neighborhoods in all five boroughs.
In the past few months, we have heard calls for the city to cut the generous funding going to those large members of the CIG, in the name of cultural equity, but we strenuously oppose such a shortsighted move. The institutions within the CIG belong to the people of the City of New York, and their receipt of our tax dollars reflects an important public good, no matter how flawed their current operations or programs may be, or how poorly their leadership reflects the demographics of the city of New York.
Instead, first, in distributing our tax dollars, New York City must hold these institutions accountable to us – the majority of New Yorkers who are Black and POC identified. These organizations must tackle head-on the legacy of white supremacy and colonialism resulting in a leadership demographic that doesn’t represent us, and a curatorial legacy that values the cultures of Europeans above the rest of the world. These organizations must pay fair wages and artist fees to all artists and cultural workers, and address the systemic problems that prevent the participation and advancement of people of color. We recognize that cutting the funding going to the CIG could result in significant job losses, adversely affecting those at the lowest levels of those institutions (predominantly workers of color) – so, instead, we call for maintenance of the city’s commitment to these important public institutions, on condition of their transformation into spaces that welcome and represent all New Yorkers.
In this current political climate, cuts to any arts organization sends a terrible signal. In the context of the New York City budget, it sends the disturbing message that de Blasio was not serious in his pledge to end the budget dance, nor the pitting of organizations and sectors against each other, which was another hallmark of the Bloomberg years. We do not want to see small and large organizations fighting each other over crumbs, creating more divisiveness in our already divided society.
Those who cannot see the obvious solution to this problem lack a political imagination and a progressive spirit. For far too long our public spending has been subject to cuts, while the wealthiest in our societies grow richer and most of us grow poorer. This has been going on for so long that many of us no longer believe in any better reality – and we cannot blame the dedicated public employees who run the DCLA for lacking the power to change that reality, if we are unwilling to demand that change ourselves.
We no longer accept the narrative that our public dollars are restricted, and that social services must be reduced. We, who create the wealth of this society, demand that those who benefit the most from New York City’s economy pay their fair share to sustain and grow the public good. At one time, de Blasio seemed to be one of us – calling in 2013 for an increase in income taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers, to pay for his Universal Pre-K initiative. Unfortunately, we didn’t support his demand strongly enough, and he caved in to the governor’s pressure. That was the last we have heard of raising city revenue through equitable means – and rather than expanding the public good, he remains content to allow the city’s bondholders to direct policy. The logical extension of such policies is the debt peonage of Puerto Rico and Greece.
That is not the New York City we envision. Revenues can be raised through income taxes, with enough political pressure on the state of New York, and in addition the City itself can reduce or eliminate its massive 421A tax giveaways to developers (an estimated $3 billion in savings), raise funds through hotel and tourism taxes (an industry that benefits heavily from NYC’s cultural attractions), and tax financial transactions.
The economic wizards who have transformed New York into one of the most unequal societies in the history of the world will cry that such policies will restrict the economic development and growth of New York City. That is a smokescreen. Those who would like to see a robust city economy could do something more effective than keeping tax rates on the wealthy as low as possible: they could cut everyone’s rent in half. The increased dollars going into the pockets of millions of New Yorkers would stimulate the economy more than any economic development initiative currently on offer.
Nicole Reiner is a nonprofit consultant and strategic fundraising specialist. She has worked to strengthen arts and cultural organizations in New York City since 2008. Diane Fraher(Osage/Cherokee) is a filmmaker and founder and director of American Indian Artists Inc. (AMERINDA) Alicia Grullon is an independent NYC based artist whose work in performance, photography, and video focuses on the politics of presence.