Last week the city released its much-awaited cultural plan. The Department of Cultural Affairs undertook an unprecedented year-long process of surveying New Yorkers about arts and culture in New York, about what worked and what did not in the city’s creative life. Not surprisingly, equity and inclusion were repeated refrains: the arts and culture sector does not fully reflect the city’s diversity, and geography and cost restrict full access to the arts. One obvious proposal is to spread more of the department’s funding to smaller arts organizations around the five boroughs, and especially to under-resourced neighborhoods.
But another proposal has generated more controversy already. The department will monitor hiring at institutions that are a part of its Cultural Institutions Group (CIG), which include most of the city’s major museums, botanic gardens, and zoos, to judge whether they are diversifying their staff to better reflect the demographics of the city. Critics are decrying the punitive nature of this proposal — holding funds for esteemed public institutions hostage to forced social gerrymandering. But it is a move that just might make a more consequential impact on equity and inclusion than many others.
Beginning in the 19th century, buildings were the first commitment of city government and public monies to cultural activities, a trend that continues in the dominance of the CIG. (Currently the CIG receives 63% of the municipal arts budget; in 1977, it was 90%.) And it was yet more buildings — the vast and complicated mix of public and private monies necessary for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts — that prompted the formation of the first office of cultural affairs in the country, in 1962 under Mayor Richard Wagner. (The office was under the Parks Department and became its own department in 1975.) Lincoln Center’s rise as yet another grand arts institution, with government support, was arguably an elite endeavor. Now that city government was involved in the arts, there was a broader debate who the arts were for.
The common answer to that question was and still is that the arts are for everyone. The problem is one of access. What the cultural plan and historical record show is that providing access is neither easy nor even, despite robust educational programs and outreach. And what the focus on access elides is questioning instead what arts are displayed or performed at these institutions and who is making these decisions.
At Lincoln Center, this issue arose almost immediately upon completion of the complex. Opera, classical music, and ballet were the chosen arts, not modern dance, musicals, salsa, or jazz. The Out of Doors Festival, led by Leonard de Paur, an African American conductor and arranger, featured all that on the plaza by the early 1970s. Similarly, few exhibitions have had such significant impact on art museums — in questioning what is put on display, by whom, and for whom — than the “Black Male” exhibition curated by Thelma Golden at the Whitney in 1994.
City government has moved from a passive landlord of buildings to an instigator of activities and performances in parks, schools, and plazas. These changes were driven by the spread of the arts in the postwar period from a barometer of social status to an expression of individual and social imagination, a cosmopolitanism that shifted from upholding elite tastes to recognizing and reaching to encompass differences.
The city’s cultural plan wrestles with how to extend this legacy. Does the city continue a top-down approach of attracting more people to elite institutions or more fully support the bottom-up flourishing of creative activities in our neighborhoods? Rightly, the cultural plan recognizes that this is not an either/or proposition, and the city should strengthen both. But one way to make these worlds meet is to recognize that largely white and elite institutions would be changed by who decides what performances to put on and what art to display. It’s a matter of creating city people, not just maintaining city buildings.
Julia Foulkes is a Professor of History at The New School, and the author of A Place for Us: “West Side Story” and New York (2016).