When people call New York a cultural capital, they’re probably thinking of the Met, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall—not El Puente, a South Williamsburg–based center for Latino arts and culture, or Arts East New York, a hive of visual and performing arts in Brooklyn. That may soon change. Such less known but vital elements of the city’s cultural life will get a boost—as will arts education in public schools and individual artists—when legislation mandating the creation of a comprehensive citywide cultural plan, passed late last month by New York’s city council, comes to fruition in the years ahead.
“We needed a blueprint, a clear strategy, for supporting culture in New York City for the next generation,” says Stephen Levin, one of two City Council members who, along with Jimmy Van Bramer, sponsored the bill. “We need to reach people who may not have access to cultural resources; to keep artists, who’ve become an endangered species because of the cost of living; and to make sure community-based cultural organizations get the support they need.”
The notion of a cultural plan for New York first took root in 2012, after a member of Levin’s staff brought the Chicago Cultural Plan, that city’s ambitious framework for future cultural and economic growth, to his attention. “Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel put a lot of resources into the cultural plan,” says Levin, “but the Bloomberg administration wasn’t interested in supporting a piece of legislation like that.”
Now that the city has a more receptive mayor, Bill de Blasio, and a new cultural affairs commissioner, Tom Finkelpearl, the timing is right. Over the next two years, the Department of Cultural Affairs will conduct a survey of the city’s cultural life in all five boroughs as the first step (the law requires recommendations to be submitted by July 1, 2017). “This is an opportunity to get to know the whole spectrum of culture in New York City, from a Sri Lankan dance troupe in Staten Island to the New York City Ballet,” Finkelpearl says. “We’ll develop a comprehensive plan after all that is taken into account.”
If specifics are thin at this stage, that’s to be expected says Julie Burros, a key figure in the implementation of Chicago’s cultural plan. Currently Boston’s Chief of Arts and Culture, she is masterminding the launch of a similar initiative there. “Every city’s plan is different, and New York has yet to determine what issues need addressing,” she says, citing the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial this October as a direct outcome of Chicago’s cultural plan.
Alisa Solomon, director of the arts and culture concentration of the M.A. program at Columbia Journalism School, thinks the robust survey could inform future development and planning. Cultural life is disrupted when neighborhoods gentrify, Solomon points out, mentioning Manhattan’s historically Jewish and Puerto Rican Lower East Side as an example. “As housing changes to luxury high-rises, the population changes, and so does cultural production. The city’s plan will widen the lens to include all the vibrant culture in this city, not just the giant tourist-drawing institutions,” Solomon says. “That’s going to be part of deliberations about development and urban planning going forward, and I think that’s all to the good.”