Toot, Toot, Tootie: NYS Arts Goes Splitsville, and What It Means

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The letter below this commentary announces the legal dissolution of the Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations, better known as NYS Arts. The announcement was the furthest thing from a surprise to arts advocates in the Empire State. Still, with our republic turning ruby-red Republican, there’s no question that cultural appropriations may be further eviscerated. Not that advocacy organizations can necessarily stop it from taking place: 21st century economics in America in general, and New York in particular, may force our hand. Yet the pro-arts case still needs to be made. Not to stave off the inevitable but to maintain the place for the arts, and for arts funding, at the table.

It’s a question of what arts advocacy infrastructure we need, who will lead it, and how it will be funded.

New York, of course, remains blue. But New York State Council on the Arts funding has already been slashed and some fear that, despite Andrew Cuomo’s election and possibly the election of a 32-30 or 31-31 Democrat-led state, it’s only a matter of when, not if, more cuts occur. I passionately believe in the inherent nobility of government-funded culture. But since the election of Barack Obama — and intensifying in 2009 with the enactment of the stimulus bill — I have also come to believe that our arts appropriation structure, indeed the whole nonprofit business model, is unsustainable and dysfunctional. In Albany, I believe we need an arts advocacy organization not interested in preserving the status quo, but in developing proposals for how to better apply, spend and apportion what state cultural funding remains. We need an arts advocacy organization with boots on the ground every day of the year, not just one day a year in, of all months, February. We need an arts advocacy organization that, when the time does come to mobilize troops, understands that email efforts are lame — distinctly late 20th century. I recognize that kicking a dead horse is sort of like animal cruelty, but NYS Arts never struck me in recent years as admirably versed in the fundamental values of arts advocacy.

New York artists — the whole of the New York creative economy — deserves an advocacy organization equipped to pinpoint and drive to the future. Let’s hope the 501(c)(4) advocacy organization that remains can take up the mantle.

It’s no secret that I wish to recalibrate my career advocating for the arts, and to do so in a way that allows me, however modestly, to pay my rent or mortgage, put food in my mouth and clothes on my body. Why that is such an extravagant idea I do not know. I am so astonished by how threatened the old guard, at NYS Arts and elsewhere, finds this desire. Is there a line of passionate, articulate arts advocates filling trade shows at the Javits Center? Are the arts so very healthy financially, politically or philosophically that it can afford to spurn those dedicated to making and improving its case? The old guard’s antagonism toward me personally (granted, I’ve written some antagonistic things here at the CFR from time to time) says more about them than about me. Too many yearn for it to be 1995 again. Or 1985. Or 1965.

Maybe I’d be better off doing what so many others have done who have given up on New York: move to another state and start over. Off the top of my head, I can think of one promising young director who left New York for Iowa, where by all accounts he’s better off — that’s a rather glaring indictment right there, isn’t it? Recently, I learned of a director, playwright and blogger, despite the rare ability to be able to live without work-related income, left New York anyway. Arts advocates should fear the brain drain.

Indeed, if I had a brain, maybe I would do the same thing.

It is with sadness that we must inform out you that the Board of Directors of the Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations, aka NYS Arts, has decided to immediately cease operational activities and topursue a legal dissolution.

This decision has been very difficult. We are very proud of the Alliance’ s efforts over the years, and the role it has played in the development of our field. However, despite our best efforts we were unable to achieve the long-term stable financial foundation needed to maintain general operations, and the quality and scope of services. After a pain-staking review of our situation and prospects we were left with no choice but to discontinue operations.

The New York Council of Nonprofits (NYCON) through an arrangement with the New York State Council on the Arts is assisting the Board with administration, legal and debt management services as we wind down the affairs of the corporation and take the necessary and appropriate steps toward a responsible dissolution.

We have every confidence in the continued vitality of the field, and its leaders going forward. As you may already know, NYSCA has arranged for membership in NYCON for all if its affiliated arts and cultural organizations in the state to provide technical assistance and services.

Many of you have asked about the future of advocacy services. Please note that The Alliance/Arts Action for New York remains an independent, 501(c) 4 advocacy organization. The Alliance/Arts Action for New York has its own Board of Directors and membership, and they will be making their own decisions as to their future course.

On behalf of the Board of Directors, I want to thank all of you for your participation in and support over the years for NYS Arts. I particularly want to express my appreciation to those who generously responded to our urgent call for donations back in July.

Sincerely,

Veronica Claypool
President of the Board of Directors
The Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations, Inc. more commonly known as the Alliance of New York State Arts Councils, Inc.