The State of Culture in New York City

Creative New York report by the Center for an Urban Future

Creative New York report by the Center for an Urban Future

There’s been a lot of grumbling and hand-wringing and ink spilled over the artists and performing arts venues that have recently de-camped from New York for other locales.  Wanting to get a better handle on what’s really happening, I turned to  Creative New York ,  an important report by the Center for an Urban Future , which examines the economic impact of the creative industries.    Some surprising facts emerge:  the creative sector, which they define as being “advertising, film and television, broadcasting, publishing, architecture, design, music, visual arts, performing arts, and independent artists” is one of the fastest growing in New York’s economy, consisting of some 14,145 creative businesses employing 295,755 people, or 7% of all jobs in the City (figures are from 2013).  In addition, the Big Apple is home to  8.6 % of all creative sector jobs in the US, surpassing Los Angeles, even in the music industry. 

In some ways I’m not surprised by these findings, especially when I look at the new galleries, theatres and music venues that have opened in recent years, mainly in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but also in Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, albeit in smaller numbers.    Frieze, a premier art fair based in London has it’s own Frieze Week on Randall’s Island, and the Art Art fair now has a show here.

NYC’s cultural institutions, especially the Metropolitan Museum, Lincoln Center and Broadway, are major tourist attractions, and smaller venues, such as the Apollo, have an international reputation.

You’ll find the City’s creative talent staffing fashion companies, advertising firms, tech game developers and  e-commerce platforms like Etsy.  I know first-hand that NYC’s vibrant cultural scene is a major draw for foreign companies looking to set up shop in the US.

So, overall, things are good. But, there are challenges on several fronts.  Detroit, Philadelphia, Austin and Portland are touting their low-cost locations while artists such as Patty Smith and David Byre are bemoaning the high costs of the metropolitan area and even encouraging local creatives to set up shop in other cities.

While affordability remains a major issue, especially in Manhattan and Brooklyn, smaller dance troupes, opera companies, and performing spaces are opening all across the five boroughs, many tapping into the traditions of the local immigrant communities, both established (2 Irish arts venues in Manhattan and 1 in Queens) and more recently arrived (Terraza 7, a Latin American venue in Queens).

Creative New York offers a series of well-considered initiatives that can be taken, mostly by government, to boost the cultural sector, including: re-purposing underused real estate, such as the upper floors of commercial strips for artists spaces; developing artists housing; increasing the supply of collaborative working spaces and encouraging the sharing of back-office resources among arts groups. On a very practical note, the report cites several existing models from other programs that could easily be adapted and replicated in the cultural sector.

One idea the report proffers is developing production and innovation districts in certain manufacturing zones, which would include live-work spaces for artists collectives.  While there is much merit to this proposal, I would like to emphasize that it is very important that the City retain the existing industrial areas and explore how they can be expanded or re-purposed to support the creative industries, especially the arts.  In addition to spaces for fashion and design companies for garment and furniture manufacturing, think of all the sets that need to be built for theatre,TV and movie production, not to mention the costumes and wigs, production and post-production facilities, rehearsal and recording spaces, etc., all of which are appropriate for manufacturing spaces.

Having spent almost all my career working for international businesses, or helping US companies export, or helping foreign companies set up in NYC, I see a lot of room for growth internationally in the arts, and in the creative sector more broadly, so I was delighted to read a recommendation in Creative New York that the City or State “develop a strategy to support exports and foreign direct investment in the arts.” 

The report details how declining government support for the arts is another challenge, especially for the mid-size and small organizations that may not have the fundraising prowess of their larger cousins. It also addresses some of the ways the tax code hurts individual artists, who don’t always have a steady source of income.  To which I would add another problem with the tax code that creates difficulties for smaller organizations to raise funds from the private sector, namely the need for tax-exempt, not-for-profit status.  While I think the deductibility of charitable contributions is important, its clear to me we need to find a way for individual artists and smaller entities to benefit from this tax code provision without having to form a 501(c)(3).   Yes, it’s possible to use a fiscal sponsor, but that doesn’t always work. I recently looked at this issue for a small organization, so I know a bit of what’s involved.   The reality is that most small arts entities don’t have the capacity to form and sustain a board of directors or maintain and file the necessary annual reports that tax-exemption requires.  I hope someone can figure this out.

Despite the challenges, the creative sector in New York City remains vibrant, but it does need attention, especially if the Big Apple is to remain one of the world’s cultural capital. 

Creative New York covers a lot of ground, and I’d encourage you to read it.

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