2017-07-19 12:51:02
De Blasio, in ‘Cultural Plan,’ Proposes Linking Arts Money to Diversity

On Wednesday Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed linking city funding for museums and arts groups to progress at increasing diversity among their employees and board members. This unusual move would put pressure on elite cultural institutions that are led largely by white executives and power brokers from Wall Street, real estate and other industries.

Mr. de Blasio, in a news conference announcing a new “cultural plan” for the five boroughs, said the city would collect data on the makeup of the staffs and boards at publicly supported institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, the American Museum of Natural History and dozens of others. The mayor said the city would require these arts organizations to submit “meaningful goals” for making their ranks more diverse.

“This will be a factor in the city’s funding decisions going forward,” Mr. de Blasio said at the announcement in Queens. “We do this because we believe in fairness.”

Asked if he believed that certain cultural organizations were elitist, the mayor said, “I think they were.” He added, “There is still the assumption among New Yorkers about where they belong and where they don’t belong.”

The proposal to tie money to diversity goals is a change from past statements by city officials. Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of cultural affairs, said in 2015 that the city had no plans to determine future financial support for arts groups based on their success in achieving diversity. “We’re not looking to be punitive,” he said then.

Labeled “the first comprehensive cultural plan in New York City history,” the 175-page report is also a political document by a mayor who has made equity a campaign theme as he seeks re-election. For now, the plan calls for maintaining city funding for New York’s most popular museums, allaying concerns that some of their subsidies would be flagged for smaller arts organizations. Mr. de Blasio on Wednesday also pledged to increase money for those less prominent groups, many in neighborhoods outside Manhattan.

The something-for-everyone nature of the plan avoids hard choices or high expectations for cultural institutions. Instead it makes general promises to support the arts and try to do more for weaker organizations. Yet Mr. de Blasio went a step further in his remarks on Wednesday by putting special emphasis on diversity and raising the possibility that museums with predominantly white and male staffs and board members might lose money in the future if they did not diversify.

Mr. Finkelpearl acknowledged in an interview that the cultural plan was a road map rather than a guarantee of future changes to city arts funding. “This is not a budget document,” he said. “This is a document that sets a course. All this stuff will be taken into consideration in future-year budgets.”

At the same time, Mr. Finkelpearl added, “I would consider it a failure if we don’t have a measurable increase in cultural resources in those parts of the city that aren’t being reached right now in five years.”

After a monthslong process during which the city considered input from nearly 200,000 city residents, the plan says that “New Yorkers want equitable distribution of arts and culture across the five boroughs, particularly in underresourced neighborhoods and historically underrepresented communities.”

Cultural participation is 20 percent higher among New York City’s highest-income earners than its lowest earners, according to the plan. Seventy-five percent of New Yorkers say that they wish they could attend arts and cultural activities more often, and 72 percent say they would participate more in cultural activities if the events were closer to home.

The plan also describes geographical inequities.

“There’s a north-south division in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and a sense in Queens that the cultural resources cluster along the 7 train corridor,” the document says. “As it becomes more difficult for moderate- and low-income New Yorkers to live near the center, transportation and geographic divides come to the surface.”

City arts leaders have long questioned the city’s century-old formula for financing cultural institutions, which lacks clear criteria or consistency, having been determined case by case over the years. Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, which funded the research for the cultural plan, said the report represented a positive step, provided that it eventually leads to a different formula by which arts organizations are financed.

“We should be celebrating that Staten Island will get more money for the arts,” Mr. Walker said. “Some part of this is going to be disruptive. That is a good thing, if it produces a fairer system.”

In the city’s budget for fiscal year 2018 — which was finalized in June, before the completion of the cultural plan — arts funding increased by $18.5 million, to a total of $188.1 million. Mr. Finkelpearl said he would use some of that to start making changes.

The emphasis on diversity is clear throughout the cultural plan. A study conducted by the Cultural Affairs Department last year found that 67 percent of city residents identify as members of minorities, yet only 38 percent of employees at cultural organizations belong to those groups.

“The least-white jobs are maintenance and security,” Mr. Finkelpearl said, “and the whitest are curators. That points to some problems.”

The report also calls for increasing funds for individual artists, citing research showing that 75 percent of New York City artists support themselves with outside income, and that 40 percent can’t afford supplies. New money and resources would also go to train more minority applicants for cultural jobs; improve interpretation services at arts organizations (about half of the city’s residents speak a language other than English at home); and improve access to cultural institutions for New Yorkers with disabilities.

The city also intends to create a position to help cultural organizations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. “Twenty-five percent of this agency budget pays for energy,” Mr. Finkelpearl said, adding that environmental improvements to cultural buildings could result in substantial savings.

“It may be the least sexy of all the recommendations,” he said, “but it could be the most significant.”

In the long term, budget increases will be directed toward arts groups in “low-income communities that need more support to thrive,” Mr. Finkelpearl said.

“We will point some money at that,” he added.

For the plan to prove meaningful, some say, a funding supply needs to continue.

“The report should be considered a clarion call to double down and reinvest in the arts and culture,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, majority leader of the City Council and chairman of its Cultural Affairs Committee, who helped spearhead legislation to create the plan. “We can address equity, we can address access, but we can only do that with increased funding.”

The 33 museums and arts groups operating in city-owned buildings or on city-owned land — known as members of the Cultural Institutions Group, or CIGs — had worried that the city would take away some of their funding and give it to smaller organizations. The group’s members receive about 63 percent of the municipal arts budget; the remaining 37 percent is distributed through a competitive application process among nearly 1,000 organizations that are not in or on city property.

Money for the Cultural Institutions Group will not be cut, Mr. Finkelpearl said; in fact, the appropriation for some members will increase.

“There are CIGs that we fear are underfunded,” Mr. Finkelpearl said. “Some of those are in low-income communities, and that’s something we want to address in the plan.”

A Culture Cabinet made up of representatives from other city agencies will help Mr. Finkelpearl’s Cultural Affairs Department leverage its efforts, he said. A Citizens’ Advisory Committee that consulted on the cultural plan will continue to meet and advise over the next five years, and city officials will continue to seek feedback from the public.

“You write a plan,” Mr. Finkelpearl said, “and then the work begins.”