CITY CAPITAL FUNDING FOR CULTURALS | Part 3: Ideas and Insights into Strengthening NYC’s Cultural Infrastructure

A BIG thanks to everyone
who checked out the previous posts on city capital funding for culturals. As a
recap, Part 1 aimed to demystify HOW NYC funds capital projects for arts and cultural facilities. Part 2 shared some of my research on city capital commitments for culturals and provided a snapshot of WHERE the monies have been going. Today’s post will share some ideas and insights into strengthening our city’s cultural infrastructure.

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Coordinate Cultural Infrastructure with Other Infrastructure  

In its simplest form, infrastructure is the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise (Oxford Definition). Much of our city’s infrastructure including roads, parks, power and water supplies and public transit systems are conduits to deliver vital
stuff to people.  For our purposes, “cultural infrastructure” refers to the vast network of art and cultural facilities that deliver arts and other experiences to the public.  The maintenance and expansion of our cultural infrastructure can be coordinated with other efforts to strengthen existing systems.

Ideally our cultural facilities are accessible, oriented to transit, surrounded by safe streets and are located near a mix of commercial and residential uses resulting in a diversity of pedestrian activity. Unfortunately, this ‘plannerly utopia’ doesn’t always pan out but it’s increasingly important to identify ways to integrate arts and culture into the existing urban fabric and community planning process.

*Question – In fiscal year 2014, which single cultural project received the largest city capital commitment? And which extended subway line will deliver you straight to its front door?

Build Upon Existing Community and Cultural Assets  

While cultural infrastructure can be planned from the top down, I think the most successful efforts are cultivated from the bottom up. Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts (NOCD-NY) does great organizing and advocacy work around the idea of cultural infrastructure that builds upon assets that already exist in a community as opposed to importing cultural products somewhere new. And who better to help us inventory community assets than people from the neighborhood!

One of my favorite examples is our very own FABnyc and their Lower East Side constituents! The Lower East Side has a long and rich history of music clubs, vaudeville, jewish performance, radical theater and countless other cultural assets. Under pressure from market forces and the threat of losing valuable cultural space, the community organized and acquired 8 properties from the city for $8 dollars and designated it a Cultural District – one of only three official arts districts in the City (Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District, Kaufman Arts District in Astoria and East 4th Street Cultural District).

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Building Capacity Where It’s Needed

My research helped to illustrate WHERE the capital commitments and projects are concentrated and where the gaps are. This type of quantitative data, used in combination with qualitative approaches (e.g. community meetings, asset mapping exercises, well designed surveys, etc.) begins to paint a complete picture of existing infrastructure. Part of enhancing our cultural infrastructure is expanding the system to deliver services to new communities. One challenge is that the city wants to limit its exposure to risk and ensure that investment in a cultural asset can be well maintained and serve a public purpose. Not to mention, capital projects frequently require a lot of additional private resources on top of city funds. So what happens when a community doesn’t have the existing organizational capacity and infrastructure to support a capital project?

Luckily the city and other arts service organizations are committed to strengthening infrastructure in these communities and there are a growing number of professional development and technical assistance opportunities out there…keep reading.

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The City is Committed!

On April 22nd of this year, the de Blasio administration released the closest thing that we have to a master plan, “One New York: The Plans for a Strong and Just City”. The plan’s cultural goal is that “All New Yorkers will have access to cultural resources and activities” with an initiative to “ensure well-used, high-quality cultural facilities and programming in all neighborhoods”. A few days later, City Council unanimously passed legislation to develop a comprehensive
cultural plan for NYC
. The bill says, “it is important to understand the scope of cultural services throughout the City, where these services are lacking and how cultural service gaps may be filled”.

While this can all look like a lot of talk and no action, the city has made some real strides. The Department of Cultural Affairs’ (DCLA) has developed an initiative for Building Community Capacity (BCC). This eighteen-month program helps neighborhoods develop leadership so organizations can better serve their constituents. Through strengthened infrastructure, these organizations are able to focus more of their time on delivering arts experiences to their audience.

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Transparency and Access to Information  

Truth be told, I didn’t have the easiest time getting the data I needed to research city capital funding for cultural NYC Open Data presents a perfect platform to make data on city capital funding easily accessible to the public. You can find tons of cool data sets on topics ranging from restaurant inspection results to parking violations.

The NYC Parks Department has implemented a nifty online Capital Projects Tracker so that you and I can stay up to date on the status of more than 400 capital projects happening in parks around the city. If it was well maintained and kept current, I would love to see a Capital Projects Tracker for Culturals!

Closing Antidote

As I write this (October 6th), nestled under the Brooklyn Bridge, a ribbon cutting ceremony is underway for the new St Ann’s Warehouse facility in the historic 1860’s Tobacco Warehouse. Like with most cultural facilities, over the past 30 years, St Ann’s Warehouse has gone through a few iterations before arriving at this new home.  Starting in a church in Brooklyn Heights and then graduating to a warehouse at 38 Water Street, the organization is no stranger to adaptive reuse. In the late 2000’s, the owners of 38 Water Street and longtime DUMBO impresarios, Two Trees Management, had plans to build a mix use building with condos and a school on the severely under developed lots.

I was in good company as I testified at my first public city council hearing on the Dock Street project when filmmaker Ken Burns dropped in to defend the view of the bridge.  One of the many issues facing the development was that it would require razing the current structure at 38 Water and displacing the organization that occupied it. The developers, who sat on St Ann’s Board of Directors, were committed to relocating their tenant. Now we know where the story ends.

I guess I’m sharing this story because it wasn’t until this experience that I began to understand the complex networks involved in cultural development and the many (and often disparate) players at the table including funders, the city, development interests, the arts community and local residents. In the end, the more we understand our communities and the systems that serve them, the better chance we have at making informed decisions and working towards healthier ecosystems in our city.

And that’s a wrap. I hope you enjoyed this series as much as I did and a HUGE thanks to the wonderful team at FABnyc. Peace out.

*Answer: The Culture Shed, The 7 line extension

Daniel Arnow is a Brooklyn based musician, arts worker and urban planner.

Photo Credits: First 3 images – IBO’s “A Guide to the Capital Budget”  Last image – “One New York: The Plans for a Just and Strong City” 

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