People of Color Fight For a Place in New York’s Money-driven Arts Ecosystem

Issue 229

Maya Chung Oct 9, 2017

A small number of legacy arts institutions are sweeping up vast shares of public art funding, while newer immigrant and ethnic arts groups in New York City are clamoring for the remaining resources.

A new coalition of artists and advocates is pushing the city to increase access to arts dollars for those who have been left out. The group has put together a 17-page document called the People’s Cultural Plan to serve as a set of policy recommendations for the city government which, if implemented, would more definitively benefit smaller arts groups — often grassroots organizations run by immigrant or minority artists.

The document comes in response to a cultural plan unveiled by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in July 2017. Called CreateNYC, the plan aims to “serve as a roadmap to a more inclusive, equitable, and resilient cultural ecosystem, in which all residents have a stake.”

Those behind the People’s Cultural Plan argue that CreateNYC isn’t doing enough. And access to funding is where smaller groups suffer. According to CreateNYC, in fiscal-year 2017, $111 million of the $177 million Department of Cultural Affairs budget was granted to just 33 large institutions. These organizations are members of the Cultural Institutions Group, made up of culturally significant, generally well-established public institutions. This imbalance of funding comes at the expense of smaller, often immigrant or minority-run arts groups, which then face stiff competition for the remaining resources.

Reiner believes the problem persists because people are “stuck to a definition of artistic quality that’s grounded in elite Eurocentric norms” that advantage already-privileged organizations.

Nicole Reiner, an organizer of the People’s Cultural Plan, noted that there are about 1,000 smaller and often less established organizations that then must compete for what is left of the budget. Manhattan receives “ten times the funding per capita compared to Queens,” she said.

Reiner believes the problem persists because people are “stuck to a definition of artistic quality that’s grounded in elite Eurocentric norms” that advantage already-privileged organizations.

Northwestern University’s Jennifer Novak, author of a 2016 paper entitled “Considering Cultural Integration in the United States,” agreed. “Broadening the aperture we use to understand arts and cultural participation” is crucial in an increasingly diverse country, she said.

The People’s Cultural Plan recommends the city increase the Department of Cultural Affairs’ budget to $840 million — nearly five times fiscal year 2017’s budget of $177 million, though still just 1 percent of New York City’s total budget. Under its plan, $140 million would be allocated to “initiatives in support of POC [persons-of-color] artists & cultural workers.”

An imbalanced allocation of funds is not the only issue the People’s Cultural Plan takes up. Smaller and mid-sized organizations also “need to compete every year for funding” through complicated grants systems, Reiner said. This is “incredibly burdensome especially for immigrant communities for whom English is not their first language.”

Further, the city’s cultural plan introduces a range of new mandates, including diversity quotas for staff and boards. For smaller organizations, this may mean greater investment in administrative costs. CreateNYC is creating “more hurdles” for these groups, says Reiner. CreateNYC mandates organizations develop diversity plans, but it doesn’t “allocate funding for the creation of the plans.”

Larger institutions are better positioned to meet the new requirements because of their disposable income, Reiner said. They also benefit from designated development staffers who can focus on fundraising, while smaller grassroots organizations don’t have this kind of support. “You’ve got a system that’s really piling up advantage on a select few institutions which tend to represent a very narrow view of what culture is worth funding,” she said.

From her office on West 89th Street, Ballet Hispanico’s Chief Development Officer Lorraine LaHuta paints a different picture. Ballet Hispanico is a success story, said LaHuta, explaining the company was founded in 1970 as a Latino-focused “grassroots organization” — similar to ones Reiner and the People’s Cultural Plan are fighting for — when the founder, Tina Ramirez, “saw Latino children with nothing to do” in the neighborhood.

But if Ballet Hispanico struggled to acquire funding in its early stages, it seems to be a distant memory at this point.

LaHuta said she has been “overwhelmingly touched by the generosity and interest” of city government. Pointing out that the organization is not eligible for certain funding because it’s “too big,” LaHuta insists that all organizations can “find the opportunity [for funding] if you’re really looking for it.”

City Council members have been “amazingly open to hearing from arts organizations,” she said. “It’s really impressive how much they care about what’s going on in their districts.”

But looking beyond city funding, Peter Kostmayer, CEO of Citizens Committee for New York City, an organization that funds neighborhood development projects, identified another hurdle that smaller arts groups face: big donors like to give big grants. And as a result, smaller groups asking for less money fall through the cracks.

In Queens, artist Guido Garaycochea confirmed this challenge. “People don’t want to give money,” he said. Garaycochea, who immigrated to the United States from Peru, said that for immigrants, trust is a factor. “‘What are you going to do with the money?’” would-be patrons ask.

Smaller organizations are “at a disadvantage compared to other organizations that have longevity,” Garaycochea said. “They have the reputation and the names. They’re going to get the money.”

Carlos Martinez, an immigrant artist from Colombia, now works as a mentor with the New York Foundation for the Arts’ Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program to help immigrant artists navigate the difficult process of connecting with funding and other resources.

“Resources are the most critical part,” Martinez said. Beyond that, “understanding the language barrier, the change of culture, different dynamics” is often challenging for newly arrived immigrant artists, especially when it comes to the grant application process.

Applying for grants is a huge hurdle, confirmed Ayoka Wiles-Abel, grants manager at the Brooklyn Arts Council. She said there is a “learning curve” involved, and the application process may be particularly difficult if there is a language barrier or questions of documentation.

Now familiar with the complicated and competitive process, Martinez works to help immigrants navigate it and connect them with spaces to exhibit their work and to network.

A final barrier to obtaining sufficient funding may be that people just aren’t that interested in financing the arts, Kostmayer said. The Citizens Committee for New York City has “very few funders who are interested in the arts.” Only 74 of the 292 grants the organization awarded in 2017 were for arts and culture-related projects, said Director of Programs Arif Ullah.

And unfortunately, many of the donors who do want to provide funding for the arts “want to give to the Met and give to the Whitney,” Kostmayer said. “They’re not focused on kids of color in Bushwick creating a new dance.”


Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of the Arts’ Winter Gala at the Cloisters in 2016. Credit: Sam Deitch.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the organization Peter Kostmayer manages. 

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