Saving Our Cultural Capital: Advocating for the Independent Arts 

Justin Krebs 
6/23/2008 

When Borough President Scott Stringer delivered his State of the Borough Address earlier this year, film star Sigourney Weaver introduced him. The actor, more associated with Hollywood sound stages (and alien-infested spaceships), spoke about the stages of her past: small, Off-Off-Broadway venues of the 1970s, often with shaky electricity, shoddy lights and sound, and uncertain finances. In short, the types of venues that make New York the cultural capital of the world.

Independent venues allow artists to experiment and new works to develop. They give this city its unparalleled vitality, filling its nights with creative collaboration, and drawing generation after generation of aspiring performers. And they are often the birthplaces of the next Broadway hit, the new innovation in stage technology or…the career of Sigourney Weaver. On Saturday, June 7th, a vast group of producers, managers, writers, actors, critics, policy-makers and supporters joined a public conversation to discuss the challenges facing such venues, and emerging artists, in this city.

The discussion, hosted by The Tank, Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy and Fractured Atlas, sought to focus on solutions, not just struggles. Yes, we all agree that the arts are important, and we see that in the expensive and over-heated real estate market of New York, venues keep closing down (CBGB, Tonic, Riffiffi, Mo Pitkins and next up, The Knitting Factory)…but is there anything we can do about it?

In short: yes. The round table showcased different solutions that have worked in the past and that, if smartly replicated with focus and collaboration, could work again. Derek Denckla of the Propeller Group (propellergroup.net), a development and consulting firm, spoke of how his recent residential project in Brooklyn consciously sought out arts venues to be part of their complex – they saw such an addition as an enhancement to their overall project.  Risa Shoup of chashama (chashama.org), which helps provide temporary spaces for artists by liaising with real estate companies, shared what makes commercial interests willing to work with them: temporary arts facilities bring life to a block and thanks to reliable management by chashama, owners are more willing to take a risk. Arwen Lowbridge of Fractured Atlas (fracturedatlas.org) spoke about the power of collective action, which has allowed her organization to provide healthcare and other services to small arts groups and independent artists. And Paul Nagle, of Council Member Gerson's Office, encouraged everyone to be aware of legislative solutions; from proposals to revise tax laws in New York in order to incentivize rentals to non-profits, to state-controlled funds that loan to non-profits and could help direct support to arts organizations.

The day culminated with a chance for other organizations to showcase their services: the legal advice of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, healthcare and housing support of the Actors Fund, and the work of NYC Performing Arts Spaces, the Arts Business Council, the Field, the Lower Manhattan Culture Council and Collective: Unconscious. The Tank (thetanknyc.org), a venue for performing arts and public affairs, which convened the event and moderated the discussion, was celebrating its 5th anniversary - a remarkable milestone at a time when similar venues have shut their doors. 


So what next?  While there's no single answer, artists need to act together to get policy-makers, politicians and developers to understand the needs of the arts community and support solutions. The Borough President, who opened the event, pushed the audience to make those possibilities realities by holding himself and other elected officials accountable and challenging, "We hear from the animal activists.  We hear from seniors.  Now make sure we hear from you.”

Upcoming events will continue the conversation, as will a newly-formed group list (low traffic, we promise), as we take the next steps in this advocacy together.

Join the list at: http://google.com/group/independent-arts-advocates/

And join the conversation at the following events:

Tuesday, June 24, 1pm
”Providing Adequate Workspace for Artists and Musicians in New York City

The Cultural Affairs Committee at Council Chambers of City Hall

Wednesday, June 25, 6:30 pm- 9:00 pm
CREATIVE CONVERSATION: "Is the 501(c)(3) Dead? Tried, True, and New Models for the Arts"

NYU Wagner's Puck Building
295 Lafayette Street, Rudin Conference Room, 2nd Floor
Please R.S.V.P. to elnya@artsandbusiness-ny.org.

 

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