What Cultural Facilities Forget: The Nuyorican Rules

They seem to have figured out a winning formula. Will other venues follow their legendary lead?

We are working on an interesting project in Boston right now: a feasibility study for a new, all-ages music venue. The idea is to develop a facility with one or two small performance spaces that can be utilized by a wide range of local musicians and bands, with a strong orientation towards youth. The financial challenge of such a project is developing an ongoing model that is less dependent on alcohol sales while also having a low cost of access for emerging artists. We are exploring ways to best approach the new venue’s programming and sustainability. This process has had me thinking back to previous projects and the one that I keep coming back to is the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, where we worked some 15 years ago.

For those that don’t know the Nuyorican — located in a converted brownstone in NYC’s East Village in the middle of a largely residential block — it is an unique and enduring venue that has been a hive of creative activity since the 1970s. The space itself is tiny, with a large open room that can seat just over 100 people, a small platform stage and a large bar. The Nuyorican comes to life with all sorts of diverse and compelling programs and events.

Story continues below.

While the Nuyorican is helpful in setting direction on our recent assignment, I believe that it also offers fundamental lessons for all cultural venues. It’s a bit cheeky to do, but I’ve boiled these lessons down and offer them here as The Nuyorican Rules.

Rule #1: It’s all about mission.

In those days, this was the Nuyorican’s mission:

To furnish the information and the vision to empower the underclass to join the mainstream and reinvigorate the American temper.

Wow! That’s a powerful and inspiring mission that would certainly get me out of bed and into work every morning. It doesn’t get bogged down in the what-we-do or how-we-do-it. And it is outwardly focused, offering a value proposition to the neighborhood, the community and the country.

Friday Night Poetry Slam, Nuyoricans Poets Cafe. Photo: Flickr user, txabela.

Rule #2: Programming must be flexible, creative and dynamic.

The Nuyorican approach has been to contract with discipline-specific curators who take responsibility for booking, promoting and running events. Those curators have been assigned time slots — for example Poetry Slam Tuesdays — and are expected to find the artists, advertise the show and make sure it all works well. Generally, curators collect all proceeds from ticket sales which they use to pay artists and cover other expenses.

What I love about this model is how it is constantly evolving. If there’s a program that’s running out of steam or not attracting audiences, it is easily replaced with another program with a different curator who is connected and motivated to bring artists from his or her world to a venue known for diversity and creativity.

Story continues below.

Rule #3: There must be a solid, dependable way to drive earned income that does not compromise mission or programming.

In the case of the Nuyorican, the earned income generator is that big bar covering the front half of the building — with a skilled staff slinging drinks for all events. The bar revenue allows the Nuyorican to direct all ticket sales to the curators, who are then able to pay a reasonable amount to performing artists, who are then able to do what they do in support of the Nuyorican mission.

Rule #4: Connect — and stay connected.

The Nuyorican has an amazing international reputation based on assets such as its long history, dynamic programming and strong website. That said, the Nuyorican is also deeply connected to its Lower East Side neighborhood. Their executive director used to say that it would take her an hour to walk down to the corner, buy a cup of coffee and come back — given all of the necessary greetings, conversations and catch-ups with all of her neighbors on the block. She worked very hard to ensure that she knew what was going on around her and that the Nuyorican organization was represented and engaged in all community affairs.

Perhaps this all seems simple and straightforward. But I’d contend that too many cultural organizations and facilities have lost sight of these simple rules. They might not answer all our current dilemmas but they serve as important reminders. I should also note that the situation I’m describing is based on seeing how things worked there some years ago, expecting that not much of this fundamental activity has changed. Let me know what you think.