Artists in NYC’s Low-Income Neighborhoods Push City to Deliver on Arts Equity

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Adi Talwar

A mural by TATS CRU on the Alexander Avenue facade of WallWorks New York, a contemporary Art Gallery. Wallworks, located in the Port Morris section of South Bronx is owned by graffiti pioneer John CRASH Matos and entrepreneur Robert Kantor.

After attending a $60, 10-week writing workshop at El Fogon Center for the Arts in Longwood, Sydney Valerio, a teacher and lifelong Bronx resident, found her voice and began performing poetry. Next month, she will read portions of her latest one-woman show at an event entitled Poetry Town Hall.

In Port Morris, world-renowned street artist John “Crash” Matos established WallWorks, an art gallery on Bruckner Boulevard that features work by up-and-coming Bronx artists. Nearby, one of his luminescent murals emblazons a wall behind a McDonald’s.

A bit further north in Mott Haven, a sculptor preparing a prominent public art installation lends career advice to an emerging portrait artist in the studios they share as part of a residency at BronxArtSpace, a gallery highlighting artists from underserved communities.

For decades, South Bronx artists, as well as nonprofit organizations and grassroots collectives, have shared resources, exchanged social capital and fostered a thriving creative scene in the face of systemic barriers related to race, class and immigration status.

Now they say they hope the practical implementation of the broad objectives in CreateNYC – the city’s first cultural plan – will foster a more equitable citywide art scene and address the labor, affordability and professional development needs of artists in low-income neighborhoods.

“Unless you’re independently wealthy, it costs money to be an artist, especially when you live in New York City,” says Charlie Vazquez, deputy director of the Bronx Council on the Arts, which has redistributed more than $1 million in city, state and private funds to artists and organizations throughout the borough over the last five years. “It’s not just buying materials. Cutting time out of your schedule to sit and create takes away from other opportunities to make money.”

Noble objectives, broad strategies

For residents of the South Bronx – site of the city’s lowest income neighborhoods – taking time to create or experience art poses a greater challenge than for New Yorkers in wealthier areas who experience more concentrated cultural resources and receive a vastly superior amount of private arts funding. They also face stigma as artists from a region long disregarded as violent or poor.

“There’s a perception that there’s been no arts and culture in the Bronx, that it’s this new thing,” Vazquez says. “Those of us who are from here think, ‘Just because you’re waking up and smelling the coffee doesn’t mean art wasn’t here.’ We’ve had galleries since the ‘60s. Hip hop was born here.”

In large part, the CreateNYC plan aims to address race- and class-based cultural inequities by providing resources to artists of color, immigrants and individuals from other marginalized groups who live and work in underserved communities like the South Bronx. The plan also promotes equitable access to municipal funds and other opportunities to arts organizations representing marginalized groups.

CreateNYC is structured into eight issues areas – including Equity and Inclusion, Affordability and Neighborhood Character – with each broken down into various objectives and general strategies. These include creating “new supports for arts and cultural organizations with a primary mission of serving historically underrepresented/underserved communities” and diminishing “displacement by increasing access to long-term affordable workspace.”

“In thousands of conversations with New Yorkers for the CreateNYC cultural plan, we heard loud and clear: Art and culture are important to our city’s communities, and residents want greater support for them. We also found that the city’s cultural assets are not equitably distributed among our neighborhoods. So in partnership with City Council, we’ve worked to increase our investments in underserved communities across the borough,” Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl said in a statement to City Limits.

In the Bronx, artists and advocates say they hope the plan will further expand recent funding increases, such as DCLA’s Building Community Capacity program, which targets resources to arts groups in the South Bronx and three other underserved areas – East Brooklyn, Northern Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens.

Over the past two years, DCLA has provided $170,000 to the Bronx Culture Collective (BxCC), a group of organizations that united to resist the displacement of local artists and to combat a pervasive perception of South Bronx communities as “1970s rubble strewn lots,” says Edwin Pagán, the BxCC project manager, who is also an artist and activist.

Though South Bronx arts organizations have always collaborated to create art, they have not worked so closely to achieve a firm economic foothold – more important now that high-end development is pricing out long-time residents, Pagán says.

“A lot of community-based arts organizations have to find funding and they had not necessarily interacted with each other to do that – there hasn’t been a lot of cross pollination and interaction,” Pagán says.

To accomplish more cohesion and bolster audience size, member organizations will promote and attend each other’s events, Pagán says.

The BxCC will soon unveil an online cultural map of Bronx Community Boards 1, 2 and 3; an events calendar; and a “culture key” with incentives – like reduced admission or giveaways – they hope will encourage South Bronx residents to visit theaters, galleries and other arts spaces beyond their usual haunts.

Not necessarily a zero-sum game

Debate over cultural funding in New York City often pits the financial interests of local artists and arts organizations against those of the 33 Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) members—like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn Museum— that are located on city-owned property and receive the bulk of municipal funding. While DCLA funding for local arts organizations has increased at a higher rate than funding for CIG members in recent years, the CIG members – which facilitate programs in the community – continue to dominate.

In the 2017 fiscal year, the DCLA provided nearly $15.4 million for operating costs to five Bronx-based CIG members: the Bronx Historical Society, the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden, Wave Hill and the Bronx Museum of the Arts – which prominently advertises free admission on its building facade. The amount marked an 8.4 percent increase over the 2016 total.

That same year, the DCLA delivered more than $1.9 million in Cultural Development Fund (CDF) grants to 40 non-profit organizations with a Bronx mailing address, a roughly 25 percent increase over the FY16 total. Citywide, CDF grants go to more than 900 organizations, of which about 250 work in the Bronx but are based in other boroughs.

In addition, the DCLA provides a block grant to each borough’s arts council, which distributes funding to local organizations and artists via an application and panel process. The 2018 budget includes $350,000 in re-grant funds to the Bronx Council on the Arts – nearly double the 2016 allowance.

“These grants help people free up a little more time to go out there and engage the community, which is something we need now more than ever,” says Vazquez, the Bronx Council on the Arts director.

Current Bronx Arts Council grants – capped at $5,000 – are open to all Bronx-based artists, regardless of the amount of time they have lived in the Bronx, but Vazquez says the council has begun planning a “cultural preservation grant” for artists who have lived and worked in the neighborhood for years.

“We want to honor and acknowledge the people doing great work, doing community-changing work with little to no resources. Those are the unsung heroes,” he says.

Affordability and community preservation key

Ultimately, the empowerment of artists of color in the South Bronx comes down to affordability and community preservation, activists say.

The “People’s Cultural Plan,” a 17-page manifesto created by a collection of artists and activists during the development phase of CreateNYC, blasts the involvement of real estate developers in the de Blasio administration’s cultural plan as an example of how the city uses arts as a “Trojan Horse for displacement and development.”

“Housing, labor, and public funding injustices cannot be addressed in isolation, because all three factors intersect to create the inequities we experience,” the People’s Cultural Plan says. The plan proposes a $840 million DCLA budget—equivalent to 1 percent of the city’s FY2018 budget—with $100 million provided directly to artists.

The People’s Cultural Plan reflects the intent of the city’s plan but goes far deeper in outlining specific multi-agency policy proposals—such as eliminating the 421a tax break, ending MIH-ZQA rezonings and using at least 40 percent of DCLA capital allocations to establish community land trusts for artists—to protect and uplift underserved communities.

“The DCLA Cultural Plan acknowledges the affordability crisis that is affecting artists and cultural organizations throughout the city, and that is certainly a good thing,” Jenny Dubnau, a People’s Cultural Plan member and artist told the website artnet News in July. “My concern, though, is that the Plan doesn’t offer anywhere near the amount of concrete assistance that working artists need to survive.”

At a meeting inside the small office of En Foco – a photography organization located inside the Grand Concourse’s Andrew Freedman Home – members of the Urban Arts Collective also acknowledged CreateNYC’s intent but echoed objectives of the People’s Cultural Plan.

“We applaud the city’s effort to recognize the need for a cultural plan, but we don’t feel the city has the capability to reach the many underserved communities and artists of color,” says Bill Aguado, the interim director at En Foco and former director of the Bronx Council on the Arts. “We’re demonstrating potential to reach communities and partners and small emerging arts organizations more effectively.”

The Collective wants more municipal money—in addition to the existing arts council re-grants—made available to artists, says Aguado, a former Bronx Arts Council director. A less burdensome grant process with fewer funding gatekeepers would empower more artists, he adds.

Funders can slip into a rut supporting the same established organizations or artists as they become a known quantity, he says. The Urban Arts Collective would serve a role similar to a union by advocating for increased municipal funding, identifying and promoting individual artists of color and more marginalized groups in the South Bronx and Northern Manhattan and delivering money directly to the artists.

“We don’t want to take money away from arts councils,” Aguado says. “We want to bring people to the grants, people from the community who aren’t applying to Bronx Council on the Arts. By decentralizing the idea of serving artists and arts organizations, we can reach each one.”

Ron Kavanaugh, executive director of the Literary Freedom Project, which publishes a tri-annual magazine called Mosaic featuring Black writers, says smaller collectives can better organize and empower individual artists in the South Bronx because they are more familiar with the community.

“Throughout time, artists have had to work [in jobs unrelated to their art],” Kavanaugh says. “But I want to make it easier for them to access funds and grants.”

Kavanaugh says that the collective hopes to help artists secure relatively small grants of around $500, which would enable the city to fund more artists.

When asked if a small grant would make a difference, one South Bronx author said the money would enable her to promote her work. A sculptor, who received a $500 grant earlier this year, said the money helped her afford materials and cover incidentals, such as U-Haul rentals to transport her work.

During the conversation about small grants, Kavanaugh turned to Oscar Rivera, a photographer who recently earned his BFA and works at En Foco, which has published the annual journal Nueva Luz featuring photographers of color since the mid-80s.

“With a grant, I wouldn’t have to choose between bread and film,” Rivera said.

City Limits’ reporting on the intersection of art and policy is supported by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. City Limits is solely responsible for all content.

2 thoughts on “Artists in NYC’s Low-Income Neighborhoods Push City to Deliver on Arts Equity

  1. The reason I co-founded El Fogon Center for the Arts was to make a difference in my community. An example of this is Sydney Valerio who attended a 10-week writing workshop at our alternative art space and soon will read portions of her latest one-woman show at an event entitled Poetry Town Hall. Sydney and countless others over the years have taken full advantage of El Fogon Center for the Arts and that is why we continue to personally fund the space so that artists in our community have a space to display their art or poetry at no cost to them.

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