New Ideas for New York

On September 30, the New York City Mayor’s Office announced a set of five new initiatives involving a collaboration between the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and its Economic Development Corporation. Ever since I started following trends in creative economy policy and research a couple of years ago, it has seemed to me that despite having one of the most active cultural economies in the world, New York was embarrassingly behind the times in comparison to places like Massachusetts, Austin, and the UK. Thus, I’m overjoyed to see the city finally considering the arts in their broader economic context in a more explicit way.

A closer look at each of the initiatives reveals much to admire. Here’s what the city is planning:

Curate New York City – The Curate New York City program will offer visual artists a new opportunity to display their work for free across a portfolio of City-owned properties managed by NYCEDC. Exhibits will run for up to one month and rotate through the 12 to 18 month duration of the program that is expected to begin in 2010. Potential properties include: the Essex Street Market Building, the Brooklyn Army Terminal lobbies and atrium, Fulton Ferry Landing, St. George Ferry Terminal restaurant space, and Richmond County Bank Ballpark restaurant space. NYCEDC will issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) tomorrow, and – in cooperation with the Department of Cultural Affairs – will identify a lead organization to oversee the solicitation and selection of artists to participate in the program.

I’ve written before on this site about how the horrible real estate market is convincing for-profit developers to give artists a second look. Artists’ space needs are often shorter-term than businesses, and they create significant value by making productive and aesthetically pleasing use of storefront space. It’s a win-win partnership waiting to happen. My only concern is what happens once the 18 months are over and the real estate market gets hot again. I hope NYCEDC won’t simply throw the artists back out on the streets after they’ve made an investment in helping the city’s economy recover.

New York City Performs – In an effort to increase the availability of affordable performance space and simplify the permitting process, NYCEDC and the City’s Department of Parks & Recreation will provide organizations with publicly-accessible outdoor space free of charge at locations throughout the City. NYCEDC will release an RFP tomorrow to identify a lead arts organization to oversee the solicitation and selection of artists to participate in the program. Selected shows will run through spring and summer 2010.

Great idea — alleviate the performance space crunch with performances that are inherently highly accessible to the public. This is reminiscent of the rotating festival concept proposed in my Fictional Foundation Fun series earlier this year.

JumpStart for the Arts – The City continues to develop strategies to retain and retrain talented workers affected by the challenging economic climate. Similar to JumpStart New Media launched in July, the City will initiate Jumpstart for the Arts, a training program for up to 50 displaced entrepreneurial junior to mid-level professionals to apply their skill sets to the nonprofit arts and cultural sector. The program will provide organizations within the sector a pre-screened pool of highly-qualified candidates for placement. JumpStart for the Arts will comprise a five-day intensive boot camp focusing on basic skills that appeal to nonprofit cultural organizations. Participants will have opportunities to interact with leaders in the arts/culture sector through guest lectures and networking events. NYCEDC will select a partner organization to help design and oversee the program, which will launch later this year.

I’m a little unclear on how this one works. So it’s a training/workforce development program for non-arts professionals to enter the arts? What about placement? Isn’t the problem not that there aren’t plenty (way too many, in fact) of talented arts workers out there, but rather that the jobs for them don’t exist? How is that going to be solved by creating more arts workers? And how much impact can training 50 people really have? I’m all for leadership development, but I’m not convinced this is the best way to do it.

Artists as Entrepreneurs – Today’s competitive art market increasingly demands artists to be equipped with entrepreneurial skills that extend beyond their craft. To address these needs, the City will administer a pilot program to provide artists and creative professionals with the skills to reach target markets, set financial goals, build effective teams, and develop viable business plans. Upon selection of an organization to oversee the program, Artists as Entrepreneurs will hold a five-day training program to assist artists in determining the viability of their business plan and outline the steps necessary to implement the plan. Upon completion of the program, participants will have access to low-cost studio space at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, operated by Chashama, an organization created to find ways to connect artists with vacant real estate at subsidized rates. NYCEDC will issue an RFP tomorrow for a third-party organization to develop and implement the pilot training program.

Chashama is happy to be developing a new partnership with EDC, joining resources to promote artistic development in tandem with entrepreneurial practices,” said Chashama Founder and Artistic Director Anita Durst. “The new facilities will offer space to 30 additional artists. We look forward to deepening our presence in Sunset Park, and plan to have activities for artists to interact with the local community, including a youth outreach program.”

Fantastic. Resources for artist self-training are becoming more plentiful, but there is still a huge need for entrepreneurial skills out there. Again, my only concern is how much good it does to provide space and training to 30 artists. Certainly better than nothing, but maybe the city could have explored ways to make at least the training open to more people. Then again, they do say it’s only a pilot. Let’s hope it works out and they decide to expand it.

Arts Clusters Promotion Program – In addition to the world renowned art and cultural institutions of Manhattan, many clusters of artists and cultural organizations exist in the neighborhoods and communities throughout the five boroughs. To increase awareness and promote visitation of these art consortiums, NYCEDC will release an RFP tomorrow to identify two local art clusters to receive grants of $25,000 each, an amount that will be matched by a group of arts organizations and businesses as representatives of the clusters. The clusters and their representatives will be tasked with the development and implementation of a strategic marketing program and incentives packages designed to draw local and citywide audiences into their communities.

“The Alliance for the Arts strongly supports the City’s efforts to market and strengthen the arts industry,” said The Alliance for the Arts President Randall Bourscheidt. “We have an opportunity and a responsibility to encourage the ongoing development of New York City’s unparalleled resources to ensure that our artists and cultural organizations flourish throughout the area. Investing in the arts organizations and artists who live and work in New York City is more than a way to promote an individual artistic legacy; it sends a statement that the City is devoted to providing the necessary resources towards building a cultural infrastructure to set the stage for future growth in the sector.”

This is the one that gets me really excited. The devil’s in the details, of course, but New York has tremendous untapped potential for neighborhood-based cluster marketing. Right now, its cultural tourism efforts focus pretty much exclusively on Broadway, the big museums, and other high-profile single attractions like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. That’s great, but as artists know, there is a lot more to experience in New York besides that. Do tourists coming from Europe or Japan know about the amazing indie rock and art galleries in Williamsburg? The off-off-Broadway shows in the East Village? The cultural renaissance of 125th Street? Hell, do most Manhattanites know about these things? NYC bursts at the seams with cultural and creative capital, but it’s all brutally uncoordinated and fragmented, especially across disciplines and sectors. Hopefully, this cluster campaign will help to build stronger ties between artists, organizations, businesses, and residents on a neighborhood level and lead to better outcomes for everyone.

Overall, this looks to be the most forward-looking set of initiatives undertaken by the city’s cultural guardians in years. Kudos to the NYC DCA, the NYCEDC, and the Bloomberg administration for making this happen, as well as chashama and Alliance for the Arts who clearly played key roles as well.

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