New York leans to the left under mayor’s plans for art

De Blasio focuses on diversity, social value and access for all


New York

Bill de Blasio’s cultural plans were something of a mystery to many arts advocates when he succeeded Michael Bloomberg as the mayor of New York last January. Now, at the end of his first year in office, it seems that De Blasio, who rarely mentioned culture during his campaign, has begun to reshape the city’s arts policy to fit his left-leaning values.

More details on De Blasio’s plans for cultural spending will be revealed when he releases his proposed annual budget this month. So far, “the mayor’s cultural policy is beginning to reflect his commitment to an equity agenda”, says Kerry McCarthy, the arts programme officer at the New York Community Trust. Already, De Blasio has boosted the budget for arts education by $23m, reformed the city’s complex arts funding process and initiated a comprehensive evaluation of diversity within arts organisations.

Bloomberg focused on the economic impact of culture, funnelling $3bn into the arts during his 12-year tenure and personally donating millions of dollars to cultural construction projects, but De Blasio is exploring the other ways in which the arts enrich civic life. His administration has hired arts co-ordinators in each borough (similar positions were cut under the former mayor) to promote creative collaborations between schools and arts organisations. The city has also increased the number of full-time art teachers by 316. “The future of New York’s art world is in jeopardy if you don’t have arts education in the public school system,” says Tom Finkelpearl, De Blasio’s cultural affairs commissioner.

The mayor’s administration is also collaborating with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania to study ways in which the arts affect public health and the distribution of cultural organisations across neighbourhoods. “If you focus just on economic impact, you restrict yourself to a narrow subset of activities and are forced to compare the arts with building stadiums,” says Mark Stern, a professor of social policy and history and co-director of the urban studies programme at the university. “By focusing on social value, we pull out something that is intrinsic to the arts.” New York was originally deemed too large for the study, which also examines Philadelphia, Seattle and Austin, but Finkelpearl convinced the researchers to reconsider.

Culture also plays a central role in the socially minded municipal identity card programme launched by De Blasio in January. The scheme gives New Yorkers who do not have government-issued identification, such as undocumented immigrants and homeless people, access to city services. Cardholders receive year-long memberships to 33 of the city’s largest cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, among other benefits valued at more than $2,100. The city processed more than 7,000 requests in the first week. The cards are so popular that applicants now have to make an appointment to get one. As we went to press, the city had scheduled 55,678 appointments.

It is too soon to tell how De Blasio, who spent the beginning of the year in a crisis over police practices, will approach more complex challenges facing artists, such as the rising cost of living in New York. It is also unclear whether he will continue Bloomberg’s ambitious spending on cultural construction. De Blasio has committed $722m to cultural construction over the next four years, and last year added $120m for new projects. But that pales in comparison with Bloomberg’s $268m addition the year before. De Blasio’s 10-year plan for capital spending is due to be released this spring.