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New York mayor makes slow progress on election promises

Bill de Blasio slashes budgets for big capital projects and has yet to deliver on other fronts

Many in the art world were cheered by New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s landslide victory in November 2013, the result of a left-wing campaign focused on the disparity of wealth in the city. Cultural organisations and individual artists priced out during the real-estate boom championed by former mayor Michael Bloomberg were heartened by De Blasio’s promise for more help.

Yet two years later, many are still feeling the squeeze. “A lot of us in the arts are beginning to feel like we’ve reached a tipping point,” says Peter Russo, the editorial and programme director of Triple Canopy. It is one of the seven non-profit organisations that joined together in 2012 to form Common Practice New York, aimed at tackling the problem of rising rents and costs in the city.

De Blasio has made “supporting the arts across all five boroughs a top priority for his administration”, a spokeswoman says. “New Yorkers in every corner of our city deserve access to [high] quality culture in their communities.” With that in mind, we take a look at the mayor’s cultural progress so far.Big projects out

Under Bloomberg, the city spent $2.07bn in cultural affairs capital projects between 2005 and 2014. These include $44m on the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new home and $75m towards the Culture Shed, an artistic centre scheduled to open in 2019.

In contrast, cultural capital projects are not a priority for De Blasio. He is planning to spend a mere $210m between 2016 and 2025—almost a 90% reduction, according to figures from a study by the Center for an Urban Future, a New York-based think tank that compared Bloomberg’s actual spending with De Blasio’s ten-year projections. (Capital projects concern construction and upkeep, and differ from operational budget figures.)Arts education is the main focus During his campaign, De Blasio promised to increase arts education programmes—a good cause, according to the city comptroller’s office, which last year released a State of the Arts report that determined New York needed to do more in this area. Since then, there has been an additional $23m in the city’s education budget specifically for the arts.

“Nothing is more important than that,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of the department of cultural affairs, prior to the announcement that he would be taking a leave of absence on health grounds. “Everything we do at this agency is extremely important, but for those kids to get a great education is front and centre, in terms of this administration.”High-profile artists on board One unexpected scheme established under De Blasio is the artists-in-residence programme. This was launched in July with the announcement that the Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera—who that same week had been arrested in Havana for planning a performance piece there—would serve as the artist in residence for the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Bruguera’s first project will involve her calling attention to the benefits that registered immigrants in the city are entitled to. Details are yet to be announced.

The scheme is set to be expanded: De Blasio’s 2016 budget calls for the establishment of four new artists-in-residence programmes. These will take place within city departments that are yet to be determined.

Struggling artists shouldn’t hold their breath De Blasio’s main focus as mayor has been affordable housing, an extension of his “tale-of-two-cities” wealth inequality campaign platform. Of the 200,000 affordable housing units he has promised to either build or preserve over a ten-year period, 1,500 are being set aside for “the artists and musicians who make New York culture so vibrant”, De Blasio said in February. He also promised to create “500 dedicated affordable workspaces for the cultural community”.

But little progress has been made. The office has yet to issue a request for proposals from developers to build the artist’s housing. (This is scheduled to go out “before the end of the year”, said Finkelpearl.) The Mayor’s office has also yet to determine who would be eligible for the housing or the workspaces.

“We don’t want to build affordable housing and have [artists] Chuck Close and Jeff Koons moving in,” Finkelpearl joked.

Cultural plan is a work in progress Another significant promise came from the city’s legislative arm, the City Council, which unanimously passed a law in April to create a “cultural plan” for New York, following the example of cities including Chicago and Denver. The intention is to “create a road map to cultural sustainability in the city of New York for years to come,” said City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer, who co-introduced the bill in 2014 and who serves as chairman of the council’s cultural affairs committee.

The real work will begin next summer, with the selection of the citizen advisory committee. Right now, the city is gathering data and choosing the committee, according to a spokesman for the cultural affairs department. The bill requires the plan to be submitted by 1 July 2017.