New York Cultural Leaders Examine Future of the City's Performing Arts

Special from The Record

Oct. 14, 2009Bookmark and Share

For arts and cultural organizations in New York City, many of which plan their upcoming seasons’ lineup and budgets years in advance, the recession hit quickly and devastatingly. Endowments plummeted. Donations from major funding sources fell. Membership numbers slumped.

As a result, New York’s arts and cultural organizations and their financial backers have regrouped and started initiatives aimed at saving current seasons and securing a stable path for the arts in the city. On Sept. 30, Crain’s New York Business, a weekly newspaper that has been holding a series of panels about the city’s economy, brought a one-day symposium to the Columbia campus titled “The Future of New York City: New York’s Performing Arts at a Crossroads,” which was cohosted by the School of the Arts.
 
Carol Becker, dean of the School of the Arts, summed up the stature of those who gathered on campus for the conference. “This group,” she said, “could levitate this theater if they wanted to.” They included Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera; Zarin Mehta, president and executive director of the New York Philharmonic; George Steel, general manager of the New York City Opera and former director of Columbia’s Miller Theatre; Kate Levin, commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; and keynote speaker Patricia Harris, first deputy mayor of the City of New York.
 
Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger, introducing Harris, spoke of the deep contributions Columbia alumni and faculty have made to the cultural landscape of New York and beyond. He also highlighted the University’s role in fostering dialogue around the arts and in its creation of the CU Arts Initiative, which is building new generations of arts audiences: “We have committed ourselves to serving as an essential source of intellectual capital and a convener of vital conversations like this one.”
 
Two Columbia professors led panels: Steve Chaikelson, director of the Theatre Management & Producing concentration at the School of the Arts, moderated “The Theatre Business: Tale of Two Cities?” Melissa Smey, director of the Miller Theatre, moderated “Beyond the Biggest: Operating with More Limited Resources.”
 
Patricia Harris speaks at the Sept. 30 arts conference.
Patricia Harris speaks at the Sept. 30 arts conference.
Harris, who is currently serving as an advisor to the Bloomberg campaign, oversees the entire arts and culture agenda for the city. She also oversaw the mayor’s $235 million in charitable donations to 1,200 groups last year. In her remarks, Harris underlined the economic heft of the performing arts in the city, noting that more than 1,400 nonprofit cultural organizations contribute $5.8 billion to the economy annually. The city is the largest public funder of nonprofit art in the
United States.
 
Crain’s New York Business editorial director Greg David asked each member of the panel titled “The Major Institutions: How Size Matters” a vital question: How do you navigate these incredibly difficult times?
 
Their answers were surprisingly optimistic. “We ended up with the biggest season we’ve ever had,” said Mehta. “We sold 91 percent of the house. How do you explain that? I don’t know.” He chalked it up to the lure of conductor Lorin Maazel’s final season and some blockbuster programs, but he stressed the importance of the Philharmonic’s mission. “The people are there if you provide passionate music and you provide it with confidence and with quality,” Mehta said. Added Steel of the New York City Opera, “It’s not how much you perform or where you perform, but what you perform and what makes it uniquely you.”
 
The biggest draw of the conference was the panel “Where the Money Is.” Levin, the cultural affairs commissioner, provided “some grim news and some not-so-grim news,” she said. Endowments are down by 25 percent, but attendance is up by about 5 percent. The city, “sees a real tenacity and success on the part of organizations that are finding ways to let audience members participate in the work.”
 
Audience participation is one thing; how much influence arts funders have is another matter. Robert Marx, vice president and managing director of the Fan Fox & Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, said arts organizations should make their own artistic decisions. His foundation endorses “cutting a check and going away and just wishing people a good season.” Both times he uttered those words, the audience erupted in applause.
 
—by Nick Obourn
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