Cultural policy Features USA

Bill de Blasio: good for the arts?

His predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, spent billions on culture, but what will the new mayor of New York’s priorities be?

De Blasio has pledged to restore arts education. Photo: Rob Bennett for the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

The Brooklyn-based politician Bill de Blasio’s rapid ascent from little-known public advocate to mayor of the country’s largest city in only four years left many arts leaders wondering about his views on culture. His predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, was a major supporter of the arts and spent around $3bn on cultural projects during his 12-year tenure. After more than 100 days in office, De Blasio has made one thing clear: his approach will not resemble Bloomberg’s high-gloss, high-budget agenda.

De Blasio asked a handful of seasoned arts leaders with a history of community engagement, including Arnold Lehman, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, and Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, to join his transition team. And last month, he appointed Tom Finkelpearl, the director of the Queens Museum of Art, to lead the city’s cultural affairs department (see box), the largest municipal arts agency in the US.

While it remains to be seen how high the arts rank in De Blasio’s list of priorities, the new administration appears to be focused on community outreach, supporting culture in the outer boroughs and encouraging artists to remain in New York at a time when the cost of living has never been higher.

A five-borough approach

De Blasio, who has lived in Brooklyn for more than a decade, was a supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement and is the first mayor in more than 50 years to send his children to public school. He has referred to himself as “the candidate of the outer boroughs”, and his campaign slogan, “A Tale of Two Cities”, highlighted the gap between the rich and the poor. He promised to expand pre-kindergarten by raising taxes on the city’s wealthiest residents, a proposal that caused consternation in some corners of the Upper East Side. (The plan is now likely to be financed using state funds.)

Many suspect that the mayor’s progressive politics will inform his arts agenda. De Blasio did not attend Armory Arts Week in March—an event that Bloomberg inaugurated each year as mayor. However, his wife, the poet Chirlane McCray, was a guest at the Brooklyn Museum’s artists’ ball last month, and the pair have also supported the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Fort Greene.

“Under Bloomberg, well-established institutions tended to be favoured,” the arts consultant Adrian Ellis says. Now, “those smaller organisations further from Manhattan may see an increase in their funding and their priority”.

At a press conference announcing Finkelpearl’s appointment, De Blasio said that he wants “a five-borough approach to arts and culture”. Non-Manhattan boroughs have not always gained the “recognition they deserve”, he said.

No more Bloomberg

Billionaire media impresario Bloomberg favoured splashy projects that bolstered tourism and encouraged commercial real-estate development. He asked city departments to collaborate on public art projects, such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates, inaugurated in Central Park in 2005, and helped to facilitate the launch of Frieze New York on Randall’s Island in 2012. He also invested heavily in cultural construction: in his final year in office, Bloomberg controversially allocated $75m to the Culture Shed, a multidisciplinary arts centre in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards neighbourhood that is due to open on the far west side in 2017.

De Blasio appears less focused on the arts’ bottom line. “We don’t see the arts and culture sector solely through the prism of economics,” he said at a press conference. “It plays a much bigger role than just being a driver of employment or something that attracts tourist dollars.”

His administration is expected to re-evaluate the Culture Shed, alongside many other multi-million-dollar projects that received the green light under Bloomberg. “We want to take a fresh look at everything and make sure the funding commitments align with our values,” De Blasio said.

Advocates concerned that the mayor would not prioritise the arts were relieved to see his draft of the city’s 2015 budget, which was released in February. De Blasio allocated $148.5m to the cultural affairs department, $60m more than Bloomberg’s proposal for 2014. As mayor, Bloomberg cut the city’s cultural budget every year, only to have it largely restored amid negotiations with the city council. (The back-and-forth was known as the “budget dance”.)

De Blasio’s proposal is still $7.9m less than the department’s adopted budget of $156.4m for 2014—but arts advocates remain optimistic. In an interview before his appointment, Finkelpearl called De Blasio’s proposal the “best preliminary budget we’ve seen for the arts in a long time”.

Critical point

De Blasio is taking office at a critical juncture for the arts in New York: corporate philanthropy is waning, arts education is patchier than ever and artists say the city has become too expensive to live in. A recent review by the city’s comptroller found that arts programming in city schools was cut by nearly half between 2006 and 2013; almost one-third of schools have no instructors in arts education. “Bloomberg gave principals complete control over what goes on in their buildings, which meant they didn’t always fund the arts,” says Theodore Wiprud, the co-chair of the New York City Arts Education Roundtable.

During his campaign, De Blasio promised to restore arts education to every city school within four years. A new after-school programme for middle-school students also includes arts instruction. But “arts education has become so impoverished that it is going to take targeted budgetary support to remediate the poverty in the field,” Wiprud says. “I haven’t heard anything encouraging about that.”

No matter how robust the city’s arts education, advocates say that artists are unlikely to remain in the city if housing costs continue to rise. Average rents climbed dramatically under Bloomberg, from $1,200 a month in 2008 to $3,017 a month in 2013. During his campaign, De Blasio pledged to build 200,000 units of affordable housing, but it is unclear whether those efforts can counteract the city’s record-breaking rents. “Keeping artists in New York has to do with housing being affordable, which is different from affordable housing,” Finkelpearl says.

If housing costs continue to skyrocket, New York is likely to turn into a cultural mausoleum rather than a centre for creative experimentation. “We run the risk of becoming a museum of culture instead of a capital of culture—a place where one experiences the work of artists from another era on stages and in galleries,” says Kerry McCarthy, the arts programme officer at the New York Community Trust. 

Indeed, arts policy cannot be considered in a vacuum, advocates say. The artistic vibrancy of the city depends just as much on retaining creative people as it does on funding creative endeavours. Ginny Louloudes, the executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres, says: “Every day, somebody gets off a plane, train or bus to make it in the arts in New York.”

The city’s new head of cultural affairs

The first art museum director to hire a community organiser and plan a public library branch on-site, Tom Finkelpearl shares Bill de Blasio’s penchant for grassroots outreach over spectacle. Last year, he unveiled a two-year, $65m renovation of the Queens Museum of Art, which doubled its size, and he has overhauled the curatorial programme to embrace artists who reflect Queens’ international immigrant community. Before joining the museum, Finkelpearl was the director of the PS1 Contemporary Arts Centre in Queens. He also has city hall experience: from 1990 to 1996, he directed the city’s “Percent for Art” programme, which funnels 1% of the budget for city-funded construction projects into public art. Finkelpearl, who trained as a sculptor, is “an experienced cultural leader who has fought in the trenches and who understands mission and money, and how to combine excellence with a broad, welcoming reach”, says the arts consultant Adrian Ellis.

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