On pretty much a daily basis, it’s easy to find evidence of the positive impact of the arts on society, both as an economic driver and on a basic human level. Even our Second Lady, Karen Pence, is lately touting the importance of the arts and its life-altering effect on people’s lives. Yet, once again, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is on President Trump’s chopping block — a reminder to hold our local government officials accountable when it comes to supporting the arts in our cities and communities. Thankfully, NYC has numerous elected and appointed officials who stand up for the arts, and you will find no fiercer advocate than Julie Menin, who became Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) in 2016.
Menin, who previously served as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, has proven herself quickly to be an ardent arts supporter. Already in her short tenure, Menin has brought the Grammy Awards back to NYC, saved a beloved small Off-Broadway theater company and provided funding for women working in film and theater, to name a few.
According to MOME’s website, the portfolios that are being overseen by Menin encompass film and TV, theater, music, advertising, publishing and nightlife, plus aspects of digital content and even real estate. Together they account for more than 300,000 jobs and at least $100B in estimated economic impact.
I recently caught up with Menin to ask about her impressive rise in NYC government, the impetus behind an upcoming small-venue theater study, and what drives her.
Robin Rothstein: What is your background? How did you get involved in politics?
Julie Menin: I practiced law as a regulatory and litigation lawyer at a large firm in Washington, DC, and then in NYC before becoming a small business owner downtown. The 9/11 attacks galvanized me to enter public service with the specific goal of helping Lower Manhattan — the community that I was raising my family in — recover. I founded Wall Street Rising, which helped downtown’s small businesses and cultural life come back after the devastation.
Next, I served for three terms as chair of Manhattan’s Community Board 1, where we built three new schools, parks and affordable housing. In 2014, Mayor de Blasio appointed me Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, where we simultaneously increased consumer restitution by over 70 percent and reduced fines on small businesses. The Mayor then appointed me Commissioner of Media and Entertainment, where our goal is to help foster the city’s thriving media and entertainment sectors and expand opportunities for New Yorkers in those industries.
I am also an adjunct professor at Columbia University, where I teach a course on the leading legal and regulatory role NYC can play in consumer protection, environmental protection and criminal justice. I love public service and plan on devoting the rest of my career to it.
RR: You have a long history as an arts supporter — you helped to secure $150M in public funding to construct what will be known as the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Performing Arts down at the World Trade Center. What prompts your interest in the arts?
JM: My mother was a visual artist and she instilled in me a lifelong commitment and dedication to the arts. Moreover, as a New Yorker, I am well aware that a vibrant cultural scene and economy is the heart and soul of this city. Bringing the arts back downtown was so important for the area’s recovery after 9/11. The arts give voice to the voiceless, and afford the opportunity for all of us to hear and experience the stories of people whose lives are different from ours. I believe the arts not only enrich us, but help make ours a more just society. On a more specific note, I was so thrilled to help the iconic SoHo Rep remain in its longtime home so that it can continue to make courageous, groundbreaking theater. This sort of work is extremely gratifying.
The arts give voice to the voiceless.
RR: Your office has issued an RFP for a small-venue theater study. Why do you feel this study is important and how do you hope its findings will serve the sector?
JM: As part of its mandate, MOME supports the theater sector, so understanding the specific, evolving ecosystem of the small-venue professional theater industry is critical to our mission. We know the economic benefits of Broadway, but there have been few, if any, recent comprehensive studies of the economic and cultural contributions of Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway, including independent theater ensembles and groups. This industry, which is one of the cornerstones of NYC’s cultural life, encompasses a significant number of independent theaters, performing arts groups and organizations operating throughout the five boroughs. It is critical that the City, and those within the industry, understand the economic impact and trends of this valuable asset in the face of a complex urban real estate market and gain insight into the challenges that we might be able to actively address.
RR: Is MOME taking steps to facilitate the creation of additional small performing arts spaces in NYC, including non-theater spaces?
JM: I mentioned our role in preserving SoHo Rep’s longtime home in the face of what seemed like overwhelming odds. Along with the Economic Development Corporation, we also helped invest in BerkleeNYC — a deal whereby The Power Station, a storied recording studio, was saved — and Berklee College of Music is establishing an NYC presence in a facility that will include state-of-the-art video, sound and AR/VR recording facilities as well as performances and classes for public school children, among others. For New York Music Month, which takes place annually in June, we underwrite 2,000 hours of free rehearsal space for musicians with SpaceWorks.
RR: What are some of your proudest achievements, and why?
JM: I’m immensely proud of all of the work our agency does, but certainly our five-part Women’s Initiative to address persistent gender inequity in the film, TV and theater industries is one I would highlight. We announced these programs well before the high-profile sexual harassment scandals broke; now, addressing women’s under-representation in top positions in these industries has never been more important. So, we are rolling out a $5M fund for women filmmakers and playwrights; we held a women’s TV scriptwriting competition, the winner of which is getting a four-episode series; and we are holding pitching and financing workshops for women filmmakers.
New York is a beacon of hope.
I am also very proud of bringing the Grammy Awards back to NYC for their recent 60th anniversary; of our One Book One New York program, the largest community read in the country; and of our workforce initiatives that are giving underserved New Yorkers training and pathways of opportunity to work in the media and entertainment industries.
RR: With institutions like the NEA and NEH threatened by our current president, how has MOME’s mission or focus changed under the current administration and the political climate we’re living in?
JM: I am a firm believer that local and municipal governments can do a great deal to improve people’s lives and make a difference. This is the topic that I teach at Columbia.
RR: For people resigned to the idea that meaningful change is hopeless, what advice do you give them?
JM: Don’t be hopeless! There is a great deal that people can accomplish when they get involved on a local level and in their own communities. NYC is a beacon of hope for progressive governance under the de Blasio administration. Both the country and the world are paying attention to NYC’s leading role as a catalyst for fairness and change.