‘Yet while immigrants now account for nearly one-third of all artists in the city and play an essential role anchoring New York’s position as a global leader in contemporary culture, the pandemic is threatening their livelihoods.’
Every year brings a fresh wave of concern that New York City is losing its creative edge, whether the culprit is rising rents or a global pandemic. In fact, the city is more innovative and resilient than ever—thanks in large part to the city’s unparalleled concentration of immigrant artists.
Yet while immigrants now account for nearly one-third of all artists in the city and play an essential role anchoring New York’s position as a global leader in contemporary culture, the pandemic is threatening the livelihoods of countless immigrant artists—and the survival of the cultural organizations that champion their work. New York’s leaders should make new supports for immigrant artists a core feature of the city’s recovery strategy, or risk losing one of the city’s greatest sources of strength.
Even as the city’s economy shows modest signs of recovery, New York City’s immigrant artists and immigrant-focused cultural organizations face an unprecedented crisis. Without the benefit of endowments or large donor bases to help cushion the blow, many immigrant-led and immigrant-serving arts organizations are facing fiscal catastrophe, reporting revenue losses amounting to 50 percent or more of their annual budgets. At the same time, countless working immigrant artists have lost most if not all of their income from performances, exhibitions, and even side jobs while struggling to access government relief.
To continue attracting and sustaining brilliant creators from across the world—and keep pace with cities like Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami that are now experiencing far faster growth in their immigrant artist communities—city policymakers and cultural leaders will have to do far more to help immigrant artists and arts organizations to survive the current crisis and weave new strength into the cultural fabric of New York City.
City leaders should start by rapidly expanding immediate cash relief to directly affected immigrant artists and cultural organizations. Together with philanthropy and business leaders, the mayor and City Council should launch a $10 million Immigrant Arts Relief Fund administered and distributed by organizations trusted within immigrant communities.
Next, the city should build on its new Open Culture program enabling cultural institutions to use outdoor public space by launching a coordinated, citywide initiative to fill vacant storefronts and other commercial spaces with exhibitions, paid performances, and educational programs that reflect the local community and showcase the work of artists from underrepresented backgrounds. New York should develop a standardized temporary lease agreement and incentivize landlords to participate by providing a property tax credit through the duration of the residency.
But the city can and should go beyond temporary solutions to help immigrant-led cultural institutions secure permanently affordable spaces. Soaring rents across the five boroughs have caused multiple immigrant arts groups to give up their spaces in recent years, and back rent is now piling up for organizations that have gone nearly a year without opportunities to sell tickets and earn revenue.
Helping immigrant-run arts organizations secure permanently affordable space in the neighborhoods they serve can form the core of a long-term community recovery strategy—an approach already underway in Inwood, where the Department of Cultural Affairs and the city’s Economic Development Corporation have committed $15 million to fund the Immigrant Research and Performing Arts Center, which will include a performance stage, rehearsal space, dressing rooms, classrooms, and administrative offices. The next mayor should build on this approach by launching new Immigrant Arts Centers that provide cultural anchor spaces to historically underserved, predominantly immigrant communities in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.
There are also innovative ways to take advantage of the downturn without relying on significant public investment, which may be harder to come by in a time of drastic fiscal constraints. With a softer real estate market and historically low mortgage rates, city leaders should seize the opportunity to convene small immigrant-led arts organizations that can pool resources—in partnership with major cultural endowments and impact investors—to acquire shared space for production, rehearsals, and performances.
With a new level of support for immigrant artists, the organizations they lead, and the communities they uplift and inspire, New York City can ensure that these vital arts ecosystems not only survive this crisis but help spark an inclusive, creative rebound.
Eli Dvorkin is the editorial and policy director of the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a leading New York City-based think tank focused on building a more inclusive economy. Laird Gallagher is CUF’s associate editor.