NYC Releases Data That Will Help Shape the City’s Cultural Future
On Monday, New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) released “What We Heard,” a report detailing the results of roughly seven months of public engagement conducted in the lead up to the city’s forthcoming cultural plan. The agency engaged 188,000 New Yorkers—via focus groups, phone surveys, and hundreds of community events—in order to compile its brief. “What We Heard” provides a glimpse as to what will likely be included in the cultural plan (due to be released in early July), spanning commitments to equitably distributed funding, better disabled access, and affordable living for artists.
“What We Heard” includes insight into New Yorkers’ cultural habits and perceptions and lays out a list of policy proposals. The findings reveal the robust health and value of the arts in New York, while also showing that issues of inequality and affordability are indeed felt in the cultural sector—an imbalance the cultural plan hopes to mitigate.
Using the plan’s website, residents can view and vote on the collected proposals, from changes to grant making process to helping students better access cultural opportunities. Residents are also invited to provide in-person feedback at city-wide events through May 31st. Those responses will be “data points,” said DCLA commissioner Tom Finkelpearl, used to further refine the city’s first-ever cultural plan.
And while there will likely still be vigorous debate over plan’s specific points, the agency’s preparatory research shows that the importance of the arts in New York is unambiguous. Arts and culture are highly valued as a part of the city—to the tune of 97%, according to a phone survey conducted by Siena College Research Institute as part of the outreach.
But the disjunction between wealth and access to culture is a significant theme in the findings, with 50% of respondents to the city’s outreach citing cost as a barrier to participating in culture across New York.
“What We Heard” offers a plethora of additional data. While New York provides hundreds of thousands of cultural jobs (estimated by the DCLA to be nearly 250,000), and though the arts generate around $130 billion in the city annually, not everything is copacetic for artists themselves. 75% of arts and culture workers surveyed supplemented their practice with income from “other-than-art sources.” And 40% said they were “unable to afford” art materials and other tools they required.
“Informal engagements” with New Yorkers also showed that providing affordable arts education to city students was a top priority for residents.
The forthcoming cultural plan that will grow from this research is not a budget document, stresses Finkelpearl. (His agency’s budget, currently $178.3 million, will be determined by the mayor and city council prior to the release of the cultural plan.) Rather, the plan will provide direction and priorities in addressing inequity in the cultural sector and bolstering the already robust arts offerings of New York in the years to come. “Some of the issues we heard about are things that can’t be solved right away,” said Finkelpearl.
And in a city of 8.4 million, it’s not surprising that different boroughs have different priorities. The report found that in Brooklyn, gentrification is the top concern, while in Staten Island it’s the availability of transportation to access arts and culture. In Manhattan, the prevailing issue is more equitable distribution of resources between large and small institutions.
But across the city there are shared patterns of concern. For instance, in all boroughs, residents noted that cultural resources tended to be clustered in concentrated areas (such as along the 7 train corridor in Queens, for instance). Indeed, cost isn’t the only barrier to cultural access—location and publicity also ranked as factors influencing attendance, with 72% and 75% of respondents respectively saying they’d participate in cultural events if they were closer or better advertised.
There are reasons why all of this matters, beyond the pleasures of art itself. Research has found that presence of cultural resources in poorer areas is connected to quantifiable quality of life benefits like lower crime and better health.
Not everyone is happy with the forthcoming cultural plan and its research process, criticizing a perceived proximity to real estate developers who, they argue, are rapidly making the city unaffordable. Finkelpearl rejects this characterization of those involved in the project, who he says do not include “people who have bought a property and built luxury housing.” He noted that the final plan will take a broad view of the city’s arts sector, from the economic and cultural impact of established institutions (like the Natural History Museum or MoMA) to the importance of smaller community organizations in residential neighborhoods.
After roughly 100 community meetings, Finkelpearl is used to hearing impassioned debate around the plan and the overall importance of culture for New Yorkers. With more community events slated for the rest of this month, residents still have time to voice their feelings on a document that will shape the future cultural landscape of New York. “You know you’re getting it right when everyone is getting upset with you for different reasons,” Finkelpearl said. “We’re still hearing from people, we’re still getting data, we’re still refining.”
Isaac Kaplan is an Associate Editor at Artsy.