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The COVID-19 pandemic decimated New York City’s arts and culture sector, as venues closed and tourism evaporated. By December 2020, employment in the arts industry, which annually generated over $7 billion in wages and had seen years of steady growth, declined by two-thirds compared to the year before, according to a state comptroller report.
Reviving arts and culture in the city is important in its own right, as a potent indicator of New York’s resilience, but it’s also closely tied to tourism which, the thinking goes, won’t recover until 2024, at the earliest.
This devastated arts sector is one of many problems the next mayor is inheriting. The troubled and vital industry includes a mix of large and small operators—Broadway theaters, film production companies, world-class museums, art galleries, small venues, arts-dependent businesses like costumers and set-builders, and independent artists, all struggling to get by. And these different constituencies likely need different plans. Broadway, which expects to start opening this fall, needs a different solution than, say, a visual artist who is trying to afford their rent.
Two bright spots: $16 billion in federal grant money allocated to arts venues and $25 million in federal funds to start a City Artists Corps that would pay artists to work, though no decision has yet been reached on how that money will be disbursed.
Here’s what the eight leading candidates have said they will do for the arts.
As Brooklyn borough president, Eric Adams has shown support of the arts, especially cultural programming that aims to strengthen community and individual health. In 2016, his office issued a report on how to better support dance in Brooklyn, noting that dance in particular helps fight obesity and helps maintain mental health. He has also brought arts organizations and advocates together to work on issues like funding programs and finding affordable art spaces, and helped secure $10 million from the state for “the creation of the new Downtown Brooklyn + Dumbo Art Fund,” Stefan Ringel, a spokesperson for Adams’ campaign, told us.
Laying out his vision for the city in “100+ Steps Forward For NYC” Adams says his administration would use empty storefronts to give artists free studio space; direct the Department of Cultural Affairs to permit more stages and art installations in open spaces; and create “a public/private partnership to create murals on blighted property.” His most interesting idea is to invest in “green art”—creating murals using so-called “smog-busting paint” that converts auto exhaust fumes into harmless nitrates.
Ringel noted that other ideas include developing marketing plans that feature the arts; pressing cultural institutions to meet accessibility needs; and easing permitting rules to allow more performances in city parks. An Adams administration would also create a mortgage subsidy for arts institutions and extend the eviction and mortgage moratorium on those properties, his campaign said.
Shaun Donovan, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Office of Management and Budget, and a former Bloomberg administration official, says he understands the arts are important, and he thinks the city has fallen short in supporting them.
In his plan, he writes, “Often art in New York City flourished despite the city’s actions, not because of them, and this flourishing followed clear geographic and racial patterns.” He also suggests ways his administration would increase diversity, by opening opportunities in the arts to BIPOC young people, and ensuring public school children get a rich arts education, including the chance to learn a musical instrument.
As mayor, Donovan said he would attend and give mayoral support to everything from art galleries to circuses, focusing on women and people of color-led institutions.
He also has some creative ideas, such as creating intra-borough bus routes that connect cultural organizations, ensuring that organizations that receive city funds pay artists a fair wage, and including studio/arts spaces when affordable housing is built.
Former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia’s recovery plan is called “Reopen to Stay Open,” and she includes the arts as a part of that effort.
“Culture and art are going to be the leaders on how we come back strong from COVID,” she said at a mayoral arts and culture forum sponsored by New Yorkers for Culture and Arts. “It’s what is going to keep New Yorkers in New York City, it’s what is going to draw tourism back and it is going to fundamentally drive our economy.”
In the forum, Garcia emphasized that good access to health care, including for gig workers, is fundamentally important for those working as artists. She also said that city funding needs to be re-evaluated so that small institutions and arts education are supported, especially since the arts will help young people process the trauma of the pandemic.
In her plan, Garcia points out that “New York City Parks alone cover an area the size of Boston.” She wants to change the permitting process so that artists and art organizations are able to use public space more easily, following the model of the Open Streets and Open Dining programs.
Ray McGuire, the former head of global corporate and investment banking at Citigroup, is a major art collector and has sat on the boards of the Whitney, the International Center for Photography, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Studio Museum of Harlem where he’s currently serving as chairman. At an event at the 92nd Street Y, he said, "We need to focus on the arts and it will be a high priority for me.” He noted that arts education was “part of a quality education for our students” and that the arts and culture sector was not only an important part of the tourist economy, but also attracted top workers to the city.
His signature idea is the yearlong “Comeback Festival,” to be held in 2022, which would provide “grants for up to 1,000 artists to create projects and activations in vacant commercial spaces and outdoor venues.” The festival—and the city—would be marketed globally to encourage tourism.
Lupe Todd-Medina, a spokesperson for McGuire, said in a statement that the candidate would strengthen arts education partnerships to better provide instruments, instruction, and space; use city buildings to provide more affordable studio space; support small arts businesses through more friendly permitting through the Department of Small Business Services; create art districts and arts-friendly pedestrian corridors in Business Improvement Districts with street performers and artists in vacant storefronts; and employ local artists for neighborhood improvement projects like murals.
McGuire also thinks that the city could support the arts more broadly, instead of just through the Department of Cultural Affairs, and would ask that each agency “designate one or more staff to focus on integrating arts and arts education into agency functions and leveraging agency resources to better support the arts.”
Dianne Morales has led social-service organizations for much of her career, and her campaign is squarely focused on social justice issues. She views recovery of the arts sector through the same lens, arguing that by reallocating funds from the police department budget and raising revenue from a wealth tax she could pay for a Public Works Administration-type project for the arts community.
During the recent mayoral forum, she said, “I'm a big believer in the role that arts and culture play, both in healing and in learning. My daughter had a learning disability, and it wasn't until she discovered musical theater that she actually began to flourish as a student. It opened up an entire world for her and helped her see herself in ways that she had not before.”
Because of this experience, she said she’d support the ways that arts and culture can be a factor in recovering mental health, though she didn’t elaborate further. Like McGuire, she said she believed the Small Business Services agency would be key, and she would create a new division for smaller arts and culture organizations. Though she hasn’t yet fleshed out the ways SBS can help, the agency assists small businesses with permitting, disburses grants, and partners with Business Improvement Districts to help small businesses get what they need to stay open.
Morales proposes increased investment in programs that help arts venues apply for federal grants and making the Open Culture Program permanent, allowing artists to produce ticketed, socially-distanced performances in the streets.
Scott Stringer is New York City’s Comptroller, and his office has turned out report after report about the importance of the arts, how to fix arts education, and how devastating the pandemic has been to cultural organizations and the businesses that support them.
At the 92nd Street Y mayoral forum, he said there needed to be a comprehensive, creative culture strategy, that the arts can’t be fixed “in silos.” His economic plan points out that the creative economy includes “thousands of jobs in publishing, fashion, advertising, architecture, design, music production, film production, and other creative fields” and reminds us that many who work in these industries are gig workers or freelancers who don’t have job security or health benefits.
Stringer said that he would reform the Department of Cultural Affairs and give grants to individual artists, not just organizations; and he’s said that funds would also go to operating expenses, not just programming, and he’d streamline access to capital funding.
One of the big ideas he has is to establish “creative economy zones” which would change zoning to allow those in the creative sector to use industrial spaces. He’d also expand arts-related business incubators where equipment and space is shared, like the Made in NY Media Center, to help start-ups in the city; he’d create a number of culture districts similar to Museum Mile which he says would increase tourism and offer tax advantages; would encourage arts organizations to share their space at affordable rates; and would help create spaces where artists could both live and work.
Stringer’s plan also notes that the creative workforce is less diverse than the city’s workforce as a whole. One way to rectify that, he says, is to see arts education as a necessity, with each school hiring a full-time arts educator and partnering with at least one local art organization. He says he’ll expand paid internships and apprenticeships and increase funding for arts programming targeted toward at-risk youth.
Maya Wiley is a civil-rights lawyer, TV pundit, and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Her plan for the arts is embedded within her recovery vision for the city, called New Deal New York. She said she considers the arts sector an integral piece of city life; in order for artists to thrive, they need housing and reliable infrastructure, like mass transit.
Wiley says she’s committing to spend $100 million on direct grants to artists, culture workers, and essential artisans “to get them back to work," as well as cultural organizations and arts-related businesses for operating expenses. She says she'd commit $1 billion to arts and culture organization capital expenses; she expects the funds will be divided between the larger, mainstream institutions that provide many jobs, as well as smaller, community-based organizations.
She also will advocate for labor agreements that maintain pre-covid levels of pay and benefits, and her administration will subsidize the arts so they’re more affordable for everyone.
Wiley is very focused on arts education. She said she’d like to see every school at every level provide arts education every day. In addition, she said arts education should reflect the student body, and help students of all backgrounds see themselves represented in the arts. Wiley’s plan would also streamline the hiring of arts teachers, and change how their performance was evaluated.
Like other candidates, she envisioned a big party, calling hers a Grand Reopening that “will incorporate elements of San Genaro, Mardi Gras, and the World’s Fair.” It would take place in every borough, would use union labor when possible, and would showcase the diversity of New York.
Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur and former presidential candidate. His recovery plan includes Culture, Society & Nightlife, as well as a Performing Arts Revival. In the latter, he says his administration will "salvage these [arts sector] jobs and ensure that the performing arts once again has a front row in NYC." To do this, he says, he will address quality of life issues and public safety "to instill confidence to New Yorkers and tourists" to return to the city and these arts venues.
He says he will bring tourists back "by launching the largest marketing campaign in NYC history with NYC & Co," however, the city has already launched such an effort.
Yang's plan also includes protecting works "by establishing a portable benefits fund for freelancers and independent contractors," and advocating for "a Save our Stages, Take 2, which is focused on getting cash to workers."
To help venues, Yang says his administration would "orient city agencies to take a culture friendly approach."
Yang is also proposing a large comeback party with an outdoor celebration in each borough, and a new program called Broadway to the People, which would show full productions in parks for a reduced fee.
He’s a proponent of using technology to help culture, as well, and says his administration would work to attract "content creator collectives, such as TikTok Hype Houses."