Here in New York, tomorrow is primary day, and after two terms of the De Blasio administration we finally have a chance to weigh in on a (desperately needed) replacement. With other municipal races up for a vote as well, I’ve spent the weekend attempting to be a good citizen, researching the candidates and their positions. While the city’s facing a whole host of interlocking and interconnected issues, as somebody who works in the performing arts (and for a major cultural center for a day job) I’m naturally drawn to focus on their arts positions – and as somebody who writes an arts and culture blog that’s naturally what I’m going to write about this week.
Given the significant percentage of our city’s economy that’s fueled by the arts, and given the significant hit which that sector has taken during the pandemic, arts policy has been more front and center than usual during this election cycle. Which should be a good thing, right? Instead of the usual cultural war grandstanding, we should finally have a wealth of well-thought out plans for reviving and strengthening this crucial economic pillar, shouldn’t we?
Time and time again, candidate after candidate, the plans and rhetoric surrounding arts support center around Broadway, and Broadway alone. Revitalization plans center around the Midtown theater district, economic bailouts center upon Broadway producers and their organizations, the holy grail offered up as the goal of the city’s rebirth is the return of tourists and their dollars to the Broadway houses. And it’s not like these things aren’t important, but what the bulk of these candidates all seem to miss is that Broadway is only a fraction of this city’s artistic activity. It’s dismaying, time and time again, to see off-Broadway houses, artistic groups in the outer boroughs, community arts groups of varying sizes and audiences, and all the broad spectrum of arts groups in this city – all of which play a crucial part in its economy – be viewed as an afterthought at best, or ignored altogether.
It’s even more dismaying, time and time again, to hear friends of mine who work for these kinds of local arts groups to celebrate when these candidates make precisely the sort of Broadway-centric plans that don’t include them. “Theater is coming back!” they cry, as yet another proposal is unveiled that won’t include them at all. I’m not sure how trickle-down theory could hold any appeal to the New York arts community in the year 2021, and yet, here we are.
So, just so we’re clear – trickle down theory doesn’t work. If you want to rebuild an economy, you need to get the assistance to the folks further down the economic pyramid, and let it circulate back up. When it comes to theater, this is true artistically as well – you need a vital arts scene at the off-Broadway, off-off Broadway, indie, and local level in order to generate the sorts of properties that will ultimately generate Broadway profits. And for the time being, forget about those Broadway profits coming from the tourist dollars we’ve grown accustomed to – the latest report from state comptroller Tom DiNapoli (about the only trustworthy state official, for what it’s worth) suggests that the tourism industry won’t fully rebound from the pandemic until sometime around 2025. If we want a vital and economically sustainable arts scene, we’re going to need to rely upon ourselves. That means investing in companies at the local level, not the Broadway level. (It also means doing something about commercial rent so those companies have a chance to survive, which is a related but separate topic for another day.)
To be fair, when it comes to the office of city comptroller, candidate and City Council member Brad Lander has advanced plans addressing everything I’ve just mentioned. In the event that you were waiting for this blog post to make up your mind, you can consider this my official endorsement for Brad Lander in tomorrow’s Democratic primary election for city comptroller. As for the mayor’s race, I’m afraid you’re on your own.