NY City Council Testimony on Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts


This past Friday (May 11, 2012)  I had the pleasure of testifying before a joint hearing of the Committee on Small Business, and the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations of the New York City Council.  The topic?  “New York City’s Cultural Sector and Derivative Small Businesses.”

Hello!  Mouthful!

But I was asked to offer framing comments to complement testimony by my colleagues  from the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts Working Group.  I’ve skipped the preliminaries (you know, hello and thank you committee Chairperson for this opportunity to yadda yadda) and cut right to the meat and potatoes:  I’m testifying today in my role as an independent researcher currently conducting analysis on NYC cultural organizations and their economic profiles.  I’m pleased to have access to data provided through the Cultural Data Project, a national initiative which in New York State gathers a wide array of financial information from nonprofit cultural organizations applying to access public funds.  

Based on the data collected through CDP, we know a lot about the 723 nonprofit cultural organizations who reported financial data in 2010.  We know they had $2.4 billion in revenues.  We know that more than half that was earned income from a combination of ticket sales ($437 million), classes and workshops ($77 million), touring ($45 million), concessions ($34 million), space rentals ($83 million) and many other types of entrepreneurial activity.  We know that just 12% of that $2.4 billion (about $292 million) came from New York City, and that this amount includes capital funding in addition to program support.  We know this and many, many other details.

But we’ve missed the point.  We’ve placed a burden of proof on the nonprofit cultural sector:  justify your existence by showing us that art and creativity result in cash on the barrelhead.  We’ve required these 723 organizations to reveal, in painstaking detail, their economic innards in ways that we don’t ask of our Business Improvement Districts, our parks, our Industrial Retention Zones, or our corporate retention subsidy recipients.  

And yet, existing community-based cultural networks are already doing the same or similar work:

  • Providing technical assistance to member organizations and affiliated partners to improve operations and to access other supports;
  • Developing special programs to enhance sustainability, reduce overhead costs, and centralize routine functions;
  • Holding events to showcase local partners, attract new consumers, and build local identity;
  • Facilitating networking between members and affiliates to create new synergies and expand opportunities for growth;
  • Providing marketing support that is community branded while still being producer-specific;
  • Engaging the wider community in planning, programming and development to strengthen a sense of place.  

This work is happening within community-based cultural clusters all around the city now, but it’s largely unseen and certainly under-supported.  We must develop strategies as a city that allow us to recognize and support creative clusters.  We must:

  • Begin by acknowledging that they exist, and that they exist in a structured way that deserves official and sanctioned designation;
  • Create room at the table for these community-based creative sector network leaders to be actively engaged in planning and implementing programs and strategies with their business peers and public partners;
  • Reduce or eliminate bureaucratic snags and barriers using the tools and processes of parallel networks;
  • Create access to public space for community cultural uses through innovative agreements and carefully crafted exceptions;
  • Increase support generally to neighborhood based cultural organizations; and
  • Seek equitable diversity of representation and engagement in these efforts from community based cultural partners of differing size, structure, and aesthetic practice.  

We already know enough to affirm that creative clusters have a deep and lasting impact in their communities.  Indeed, in many cases they are already connected to or even embedded within networks of local small business leaders, community development partners, advocates and organizers far in advance of BIDs and other officially sanctioned community partners.  It’s time we made it official, and it’s time we made it stronger.  

2 thoughts on “NY City Council Testimony on Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts

  1. There’s no reason to hold arts and culture to a higher level of justification than profit seeking. Around the country, cities throw all kinds of subsidies at business, often with little accountability for results. When citizen groups call for greater transparency and accountability, we are often told that we must be careful not to create a hostile business climate or to impose excess bureaucracy. It’s possible to be completely open about public support and still tenderly nurture the arts.

    • Thanks for the comment Phin! As usual, you are eloquent and accurate. My point is twofold: we should hold our various recipients of public support to a similar degree of transparency, and if we’re going to make arts groups go through this effort (while also asking them to not just make art accessible, but promote local restaurants, organize local stakeholders and neighbors, and hold community-based events) then we should be providing them access to the same tools we provide to BIDs, parks and other municipally recognized entities.

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