2015-03-25 / Front Page

Van Bramer And Finkelpearl Hold Town Hall On The Arts In LIC

By Thomas Cogan

A town hall meeting about Long Island City and the arts attracted a good crowd to MoMA P.S. 1 on Jackson Avenue on March 18. Guests gathered under the dome in the yard to hear Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Tom Finkelpearl in conversation with Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, whose many duties include chairmanship of the council’s cultural affairs committee. The conversation was followed by audience participation as several artists commented on their lives and problems of affordability.

New York City lacks a comprehensive cultural plan, Van Bramer said, but it should soon have one when he and Councilman Steve Levin of the 33rd District in Brooklyn reveal what they have been working on for the past two years. He wouldn’t describe it at any length but said he wants it to permeate every neighborhood in the city. Finkelpearl, who for a decade was the director of the Queens Museum and earlier worked at P.S. 1 before and after it became part of the Museum of Modern Art, said that many cities have cultural plans (he expressed admiration for Denver’s) but others are surprisingly short of cultural advocates, citing Boston and Chicago as examples. Van Bramer, who the week before participated in an arts and cultural meeting in Brooklyn, said the arts must not be “just for the few and the chosen.”

Not just for white people either, Finkelpearl noted, though diversity has a long way to go.  Having more than 30 years’ experience in museums, he admitted that most of the notable ones are nine out of 10 white in their staffing.  A survey of how staffing might be made more diverse would be a first step toward it, he said, and he would like to begin with a look at current cultural bodies that are diverse, in an attempt to find out how they got that way.  He said he would like to have a “Rooney Rule” for diversifying staffing, recalling professional football owner Art Rooney, who promoted diversification in coaching by insisting that owners invariably include non-white candidates when conducting coaching job interviews. (At the same time, Finkelpearl said he wouldn’t want to force such policy into place).  Meanwhile, getting art into an area that is inescapably diverse would be a step in another direction.  He said the leading artistic aim of Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s administration is arts in the schools, an aim that is backed by $23 million in baseline funding.  Hearing that figure, Van Bramer said he had to claim credit for getting the funding through the City Council. 

The councilman brought up the “1 percent for art” rule, asking the commissioner for a brief history of it.  Finkelpearl said it was first put into effect by the City Council in 1982, when it voted to designate 1 percent of the city budget for art and artworks.  Funding has led to a selection process that he said has since yielded 400 commissions, some of them inevitably controversial. The controversy now at hand is “The Sunbather,” a large pink sculpture by Ohad Meromi that is scheduled to be placed on the Jackson Avenue median near 43rd Avenue. It was reported last fall to have won the approval of Community Boards 1 and 2 to be put there. Complaints arose that its placement came as a surprise, or perhaps a shock. Finkelpearl said the approval process was “followed to a T.”  Van Bramer asked if the process could be altered to increase community involvement.  

Kenny Greenberg, an artist and businessman in Hunters Point, told the meeting that artists are small manufacturers who should be considered for certain preferences and zoning, as are those commonly considered manufacturers.  He asked if there is any movement to on Jackson Avenue at 43rd Avenue destruction of old warehouses, loft buildings and small manufacturing plants in the rush to erect residential towers.  He’s therefore partial to rezoning that would be of benefit to artists.  Finkelpearl said he talks to officials such as Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod “all the time” about creating such situations.  A woman followed Greenberg to say she had been pushed out of neighborhoods all over the city because of rising prices that have, among other things, led to the disappearance of all artists’ studios in Brooklyn’s DUMBO section.   (Another person wanted public spaces for artists.)   Theatrical producers from the Chain Theatre on 45th Road and the Flux Factory on 28th Street in Dutch Kills expressed their worries about getting further capital and maintaining the permanence of their establishments.  Finkelpearl said the Cultural Affairs Commission is heavily involved with capital and encouraged applications.  Van Bramer said he loved the relationship with Flux Factory and would work steadily to keep it at its current home.

Finkelpearl closed by saying that artists have made the city great and expressed his gratitude to them.  Van Bramer said he loves being head of the cultural affairs committee in the City Council and hailed Finkelpearl as the best cultural commissioner the city has ever had—which the current commissioner parried by calling to mind those of the past, particularly Henry Geldzahler.  

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