Discussing “A Discussion About Art Spaces and Communities”

America must dump Drumpf

“Art Works: A Discussion About Art Spaces and Communities,” a panel presented on Mon., June 21 at the Times Center, was the fourth in a series of “Arts Forum” events presented by Alliance for the Arts in tandem with New York Times’ community affairs department. The dialogue was invigorating — for what was omitted as much as for what was said.

Following a welcome from Diane McNulty, the Times’ executive director for community affairs and media relations, each of the three panelists was invited to give a presentation on space and community — or the lack of, as the opening speaker, Craig Hatkoff, a co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival and chairman of Turtle Pond Publications, quickly noted. While the Tribeca Film Festival now seems like a staple of Gotham cultural life, Hatkoff observed that it is nearly as new as the century, credited with resuscitating the neighborhood north of Ground Zero in the spring after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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Given the relative paucity, then as now, of downtown venues ideally suited for a film festival, Hatkoff said the grow-big-and-build model that so often characterizes growth in the nonprofit sector made little sense in their case; indeed, the Tribeca Film Festival is a commercial endeavor with a nonprofit element, the Tribeca Film Institute, thriving within it.

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Hatkoff and his co-founders (Jane Rosenthal, his wife, and actor Robert De Niro) became intrigued by the idea of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a concept first articulated by Eric S. Raymond with regard to the development of the Linux open-source computing system in the 1990s. Could it be adapted to a cultural endeavor? Yes, they concluded. And so, Hatkoff explained, it might not be necessary, however much it might be desirable, to erect a cathedral-like monument to film. By adapting the programming of the festival to the venues that do exist, by remaining receptive to how, when and in what manner events can occur, the festival could “settle for things that aren’t perfect but are good enough.”

Six minutes isn’t long enough to roll out the relationship between the cathedral/bazaar idea and how Tribeca adapted it, but Hatkoff did offer another example that is crystal clear: YouTube and the Guggenheim collaborating on a biennial video project. It’s all about “disruptive innovation,” he said, and how culture not only creates it but, in its ideal state, leverages it.

One bottom-line implication of all this: art spaces needn’t exist for communities to flourish — and vice versa.

This implication would seem to steal some thunder from the next speaker, Roberta Uno, senior program officer for arts and culture at the Ford Foundation. As arts advocates know, nearly three months ago the foundation unveiled a $100 million, 10-year initiative, called Supporting Diverse Arts Spaces, mainly to support new buildings, and, equally key, to support their fiscal sustainability once built. Uno said the Ford Foundation’s motivation grew out of asking a series of core questions that are, indeed, the right ones to ask: What spaces do artists need? What spaces do artists say they need? Underneath these questions, Uno seemed to say, are subsidiary ones: Is the existing inventory of buildings that are usable as arts spaces sufficient for current needs? Or it cheaper to build new?

One suspects Uno might answer these latter questions by trotting out the old phrase “location, location, location.” Much of her remarks focused on a PowerPoint presentation that explains how the initiative will work. First, it will focus on three types of spaces: emerging, newly opened and established (seems obvious, perhaps it needed to be stated). In order to open up the funding spigot to the largest possible audience, the Ford Foundation has issued a national RFP in collaboration with Leveraging Investments in Creativity, more familiarly known as LINC. How the initiative will play out in terms of developing the nonprofit creative sector during the next decade, of course, remains more about theory right now than proof positive. The presence of the third and arguably the most impressive speaker, L. Kelley Lindquist, who has been president of Artspace Projects since 1987, served as an indication of how the creation of arts spaces can bolster — or even create — a community.

Artspace’s mission is enviably straightforward: “to create, foster, and preserve affordable space for artists and arts organizations.” But as Lindquist explained, it’s largely a real estate development organization devoted to serving — and very often preserving — creativity (“development projects, asset management activities, consulting services and community-building activities that serve artists and arts organizations of all disciplines, cultures, and economic circumstances”). Most critical, while Artspace, as Lindquist put it, aims to “help cities access the power of their creative communities,” it doesn’t build without full funding assured or in place. This paragraph is from the group’s About page:

Artspace owns or co-owns all the buildings it develops. To fulfill our mission, we strive to manage our properties so that they will be well-maintained yet remain affordable to the low- and moderate-income artists for whom they were developed in the first place. Revenues in excess of expenses are set aside for preventive maintenance, commons area improvements, and building upgrades.

Now, what was said during the dialogue that followed the three presentations, moderated by Patricia Cohen, cultural reporter for the Times, followed up on many of these lines of thought. Is nonprofit the only business model out there in terms of creating spaces? (Harkoff seemed to say no.) Is a nine-figure philanthropic initiative enough? (Uno seemed to say it might not be.) What is the definition of “affordable artist housing” and who gets to decide? (Lindquist didn’t say.)

Some other topics touched on during the dialogue included the question of “right-sizing”: Is it absolutely necessary for every artistic group to grow? Is growth always the right thing? The jury may still be out on that, but it’s clear that these three people are wrestling with the question and they were especially generous with their answers.

However, when a question arose, right out of the gate, about public funding, in particular public funding for individual artists, the answers from the panel were a little wanting and almost into the realm of strange. Cohen was very smart to ask the question: In New York, with cuts to state arts funding looming large but NEA Chair Rocco Landesman publicly floating the idea of artist-appropriations returning to the fold, this is as vital a topic as that of arts spaces themselves.

Hatkoff demurred on the topic, pivoting to the Tribeca Film Festival’s aforementioned commercial corporate setup. By contrast, Uno became more animated — of course we need individual artists funded, which is to say that we need more public funding for the arts, period. And Lindquist echoed Uno, praising Landesman with similar fervor. This took about three minutes.

And there the topic ended. No one commented on how the political climate (or the possible coming political climate) could shake up public funding. In the U.K., with the worst of cuts in spending still to come, the panel was given several opportunities by Cohen to look ahead to the reality of where American cultural politics may be headed and it seemed a scary subject to them. That is not to say that the topics they did cover weren’t substantive. But rather that there are still a number of hot-button issues that funders and arts advocates are terrified to touch.

A few final thoughts. Given the size of the audience (a smart, savvy and engaging packed house), why wasn’t Alliance for the Arts doing an official “tweet” of the event? Or a live-stream?

The Clyde Fitch Report would do that for the Alliance in a New York minute. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t require an arts space at all.

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