Theodore S. Berger, Executive Director, New York Foundation for the Arts: Helping the Arts and Artists Recover in the Wake of 9/11

June 23, 2003
Theodore S. Berger, Executive Director, New York Foundation for the Arts: Helping the Arts and Artists Recover in the Wake of 9/11

In the days following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, New York City's museums, performing-arts venues, and community-based arts organizations provided New Yorkers with a place to reflect and remember. Small memorials composed of flowers, candles, and photographs appeared spontaneously throughout the city. Public parks and spaces were converted into communal canvasses of grief by artists and non-artists alike.

In the almost two years since, New Yorkers have struggled to regain the confidence, optimism, and joie de vivre that is their birthright. Even the city's arts and culture scene, one of its crown jewels, has been in a funk, with attendance at many events and performances off and its support system of contributed and earned income, both public and private, in tatters. According to the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts, more than two hundred cultural organizations are located below Fourteenth Street, within a few miles of the World Trade Center site, along with an unknown number of individual artists. In many cases, their future is cloudy.

In May, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with New York Foundation for the Arts executive director Theodore S. Berger about the impact of 9/11 on a community already reeling from a slumping economy and a tough funding environment, NYFA's response to the attack, and what the future holds for the city's artists and cultural institutions.

Berger joined NYFA in 1973, developing its Artist-in-Residence program, and was named executive director of the organization in 1980. With an organizational budget of $13 million, NYFA is one of the nation's major providers of grants and services to individual artists in all artistic disciplines and also serves arts organizations, the educational community, and the general public through a variety of national and international initiatives.

Mr. Berger has written and spoken extensively on the arts and artists for national publications and conferences, and has served on numerous cultural and educational boards, panels, and committees, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York-Israel Cultural Cooperation Commission, the New Jersey Council on the Arts, the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, and the Alliance of Artists' Communities.

He currently serves as an adviser and board member of the Arts & Business Council, Inc., ArtsAction of the Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations, ArtsConnection, the Association of Hispanic Arts, the Colleagues Theater Company, the Design Trust for Public Space, and the New York City Arts Coalition, and was formerly assistant dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of International Affairs at Columbia University.

Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us about NYFA. When and why was it established, and how long have you been with the organization?

Ted Berger: I've been there too long. [Laughter.] We were established by the New York State Council on the Arts in 1971. The state constitution prohibits a government agency from giving monies directly to individuals, from funding other city or state agencies such as schools, and from raising money from the private sector. So NYFA was set up as an intermediary to do those kinds of things. And although NYSCA remains our largest donor, other sources account for about 60 percent of our contributions. We're an independent, private organization, but we're not a foundation in the sense that we sit on an endowment. We're a public charity, and more and more we're becoming something like a community foundation in that we raise money from public and private sources in order to give it away. But because we focus on the arts exclusively, we're not a community foundation in the true sense of the word.

PND: Does NYFA help individual artists?

TB: Over the years, NYFA has done many things, but increasingly our focus is on supporting individual artists in all disciplines, as well as artist-centered organizations. We're very concerned about the centrality of working artists to the whole arts community and to a better understanding by the broader public of the role artists play in art making as well as in society. So we provide both grants and services and information to individual artists. And since we recognize the fact that there's never going to be enough grant money out there to support arts organizations or individual artists, we've been looking at ways of supplying information that helps artists take charge of their own careers.

One of our important information services is the continued development of our Web site, NYFA Interactive, and within that something called NYFA Source, which we worked very closely with the Urban Institute on. It's a searchable database designed to help artists get free access to information on grants, programs and services, and publications, allowing them to download that information in any way, shape, or form.

Increasingly, we're also looking at the issues arising from the broader landscape in which artists function. We're very involved in advocacy, for example, and we're also working with non-arts resources in an effort to help artists survive in the current rather dismal economic climate. For example, NYFA is part of a group called the Labor Community Advocacy Network, or LCAN, that is advocating for a jobs program as part of the redevelopment of downtown Manhattan and the rebuilding of New York. The program would include both private- and public-sector jobs; the nonprofit arts sector — nonprofit arts organizations and artists — would be built into the subsidy program. This has grown out of NYFA's partnership with the Consortium for Worker Education (CWE), which we developed for a recent wage-subsidy initiative for small and mid-size arts organizations to help avoid staff layoffs.

"...The demise of NEA support to artists in all disciplines except for literature has had a negative economic impact and sent a negative message to the funding community...."

PND: I've heard anecdotally that there is now less funding available directly to artists, and that more funders are going through regranting agencies. Has this been your experience? What reason would a funder have to go through a regranting agency?

TB: It certainly feels that there is less money available directly to artists, but until we as a field start to gather more verifiable information about this matter, I have no solid data. Obviously, the demise of NEA direct support to artists in all disciplines except for literature has had a negative economic impact and sent a negative message to the funding community. Some funders do not want to be associated with any "controversy," so they have stayed away from this. Some funders may not want to take on the administrative load that can come with processing applications from individual artists. At NYFA, for example, we receive nearly four thousand applications for our fellowships every year. But despite the growth of new foundations, many may not necessarily want to jump through the IRS hurdles in order to support individuals.

Regranting agencies such as NYFA allow funders to vastly expand their grantmaking without expanding their staff. It's a very efficient means that a number of major funders have recognized. At NYFA, we've been privileged to collaborate with Pew and Rockefeller, for example, as well as NYSCA. It's a good investment for donors of all kinds.

PND: In the summer of 2000, NYFA launched a special project called the Cultural Blueprint for New York City. What was the principal objective of the project?

TB: The Blueprint project grew out of our realization that, as a result of term limits recently approved by city voters, New York was going to have a major turnover of its elected officials, and we wanted to make sure arts and culture was on the radar screen of the new officials coming into office. We also realized that, despite all the talk about New York as the cultural capital of the world, the last serious survey of the arts and culture in New York had been done almost thirty years ago, and so the time was right for another look at the field. In the process, we wanted to ascertain the value of the entire New York arts community, not just from an economic perspective — most people understand the economic argument for the arts — but in a way that spoke to larger institutions. A blockbuster exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art certainly leverages multiple dollars for restaurants, hotels, transportation, et cetera. Because of the successes of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a BAM Cultural District is now being developed. But because the majority of the working community in the arts is composed of small, midsize, often community-based organizations, as well as artists — the people who make art happen in the first place — we felt it was equally important to point out what the arts mean in neighborhoods throughout the city as well as in the daily lives of New Yorkers.

We'd been involved in discussions over the years about various cultural indicators. But the Fordham study was the first survey that enlisted participation from a broad cross section of New Yorkers. And it confirmed what we heard when we met with people — not just artists and attendees at arts and cultural events but regular people — in town meetings and focus groups: Art is important. People want it in their neighborhoods. They want it for their kids.

So, again, we decided that the time was right for a statistically valid study that canvassed a broad cross section of people and went beyond the economics of the field to consider the impact of arts and culture on ordinary people. And the report that grew out of that survey was calledCulture Counts.

PND: What was City Hall's response to the report?

TB: Well, we were at the printers with Culture Counts when the September 11 attacks happened. And because there were so many other things that needed our attention, we literally had to stop the presses. We just weren't sure it was the right moment to release it.

When we finally thought it was appropriate to go ahead, we looked at the report very carefully to see whether it was still relevant — and, remarkably, it was. What had been true on September 10 was just as true on September 12, so to speak, if not more so. So we added a prologue that reflected on how the arts and cultural community had really been there for New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11, as thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people spontaneously turned to the arts as part of the healing process. In the dark days that followed the attacks, New Yorkers needed to connect with something that was basic to the human spirit. And in many ways, 9/11 made very real what we had heard in our town meetings and focus groups, as well as what we knew from the public participation survey. It reinforced all of the advocacy and research that had gone into our work over the years.

"...In a sense, people didn't really want to deal with the impact 9/11 had on individual artists...."

Once the report was off the press, we distributed it to members of the City Council and Kate Levin, the commissioner of cultural affairs, among others. And they've been able to use it in the way for which it was intended: as a primer and a tool for thinking about the arts in New York City.

Certainly, with many issues facing New York in the aftermath of 9/11 and an eroding economy, Culture Counts has continued to serve as a basic starting point for advocacy and subsequent budget processes. The issues identified then continue to be critical issues to the present and future of the arts in the lives of all New Yorkers.

PND: What kind of impact did 9/11 have on the arts community in New York? Did it affect one field or discipline more than others, or was everyone equally hard hit?

TB: No one was exempt from the impact of 9/11. We think of it in terms of concentric circles. Obviously, the impact was greatest in the immediate vicinity of ground zero, but like rings that spread outward when you throw something into a pond, the impact rippled throughout the city, the state, the region, and the country. Everybody was hurt by 9/11 in some way. And because NYFA is located below Houston Street, we were affected rather dramatically: We saw the fires and the black smoke and the people jumping from the towers and the towers collapsing.

But the economic impact of this event was terrible — and not only downtown, where it was devastating. Performing arts groups lost audiences and bookings here and across the country; exhibitions were cancelled, or, if they took place, people stayed away; few people were buying art; arts organizations and artists lost revenue when schools cancelled programs and residencies; individual artists not only saw reduced sales, they also lost their day jobs. Remember, there were a lot of problems before 9/11. And, in my opinion, a lot of people were in denial about those problems and what was happening with the economy. The arts community in New York is enormously proud and resilient, and it's gotten used to doing things with smoke and mirrors. But the fault lines were there. One important factor we've been tracking is the impact the attacks had on earned income. And as we've learned, if it was bad for organizations in the aftermath of 9/11, it was even worse for individual artists. In a sense, people didn't really want to deal with the impact 9/11 had on individual artists. Certainly, the press was more interested in the impact on organizations and institutions than it was in the impact on individuals in the arts.

PND: Do you have a theory about that?

TB: I think the press is simply more used to dealing with institutions and organizations, and I think the public doesn't really understand the role individual artists play in the cultural ecosystem. The stories about individuals seem fine in terms of human interest appeal, but it seems easier to codify the economics of organizations than it is for individuals.

"...I think the public doesn't really understand the role individual artists play in the cultural ecosystem...."

PND: What did NYFA do in the months after 9/11 to help the arts community in New York get back on its feet?

TB: Part of what we did was to analyze what was happening with individuals. Because we cover all disciplines and because we deal with individual artists, we worked with our colleagues at arts service organizations like ART/NY, DanceNYC, the Asian American Arts Alliance, and the Association of Hispanic Arts, as well as funders such as the Andy Warhol Foundation and Grantmakers in the Arts. We also held a series of town meetings, just to get a sense of what was happening.

As we gathered information, we also tried to figure out how the various 9/11 relief funds that had sprung up would impact artists and arts and cultural organizations. So the first thing we did was to get together with the New York City Arts Coalition to create brochures that offered a road map to the various public and private funds out there and explain what they could or couldn't provide for. And in the course of doing that and talking to artists around the city — but particularly artists downtown — it became clear that most of the money in the funds was designated for direct victims of the attacks and not indirect victims. It also became clear that there wasn't going to be a way to access most of the money that had been raised.

So I went to our board president, Peggy Ayers, and said, "We have to do something about this." And in talking about what we might do, we realized that, over the years, we had really become a sort of community foundation for the arts in New York and already had a grantmaking infrastructure in place. So, on the spot, we decided we needed to develop a special initiative to deal with the impact of 9/11. Then I called some colleagues in San Francisco and Seattle — people who had dealt with earthquake emergencies — and they were extremely helpful in getting me to think through the steps involved in a rapid, emergency-type response. At the same time, we formed a special committee of our board to handle governance issues related to the initiative and created an ad hoc committee to deal with policy issues.

Next, we formed a collaborative effort with our sister service organizations — ART/NY, the American Music Center, the Asian American Arts Alliance, the Harlem Arts Alliance, the Association of Hispanic Arts, and the New York City Arts Coalition, among others — and decided to call it the New York Arts Recovery Fund. From the beginning, the Fund was designed as a citywide effort, and we decided that grants would be awarded on the basis of demonstrable financial need. So artistic excellence, which is usually part of our regular grant criteria, was not a consideration.

NYFA then began to raise the critical funds to get going. Our first leadership grants — in the amount of $350,000 and $250,000, respectively — came from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. Then the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation committed $2.65 million each to three Fund partners — Art/NY, which regranted it to small and mid-size theaters; the American Music Center, which regranted it to composers and small and mid-size music groups; and NYFA, which was charged with regranting it to everybody else, including individual artists. In addition, we were able to raise another $2.58 million from a variety of sources, for a total of $5.23 million. So that by August 2002, we could say we had given away about $4.6 million to a hundred and thirty-five arts organizations and had made about three hundred and fifty grants to individual artists. Having said that, we knew it was only a Band-Aid — and in some cases maybe a tourniquet — applied to a range of problems, and that the needs remain.

Now we're involved in a follow-up initiative called Arts Rebounding, which includes peer coaching and mentoring for artists and for arts administrators, wage subsidies for small and midsize arts organizations, and capacity-building grants. Obviously, we haven't experienced the same kind of emotional response from donors we received in the wake of 9/11, but we're very grateful to the funders that have responded despite the rough funding climate. And we continue to look at what's going to be needed to get people through the present economic slowdown, which we believe is going to continue for some time.

PND: Were you consulted on the distribution of the two anonymous $10 million gifts to the New York City arts community, which, it was later revealed, were given by Mayor Michael Bloomberg?

TB: We were. But the only conversation we had was when we met with representatives of the Carnegie Corporation of New York — before the first round of grants was made — to discuss the needs of the various fields. It was a very broad discussion, and it tipped me off to the fact that something might be in the works. The second $10 million was manna from heaven.

PND: How are arts organizations in the city faring now?

TB: Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? [Laughter.]

PND: Right. Are they recovering?

TB: In some ways, the past year has been a little bit better than I predict the next few years are going to be. I believe we are in the midst of a perfect storm, economically. While we've had reductions in government funding in the past, and while private funding may come and go, this time the loss of earned income is adding to the inability of arts groups to stay afloat. But I sometimes look at this as a half-empty/half-full situation. Because of the weak economy, it's easy to say we're faring poorly. But on the other hand — and even despite the resources and attention being devoted to the rebuilding process downtown — arts and culture is very high on the agenda. So you've got this sober economic reality, but you also have a kind of raised public awareness of the arts and their importance to New York City.

"...In some ways, the past year has been a little bit better than I predict the next few years are going to be...."

The other thing I think has happened since 9/11 is that we're collaborating with many more non-arts sectors — maybe because we all realize we're in the same leaky boat together. But I see that as positive. Is it going to be rocky? Yes. But it also means that, down the road, more people will understand why we need arts and culture in our lives.

PND: Has NYFA had to cancel or postpone any programs this year?

TB: We've been very thoughtful about what's ahead and have had to constantly readjust our thinking and programs over the course of the year. We were hoping, for example, that we could expand our fellowship program for artists, but that's not going to happen — even though we were fortunate to have a new donor make a million-dollar gift to help us maintain the program and increase our information resources over the next three years. In this climate, we consider staying steady a step forward. But like everyone else, we've been cutting back where we can — no raises, staff reduction through attrition, and we're looking at possible layoffs — while focusing our efforts on making sure that we can maintain our core services to the field. Of course our big challenge is that we have to raise money in order to fund and run these programs. And even though we know that certain programs are really outstanding, we don't know whether we'll have the resources to keep them going.

PND: Do you have any programs or any new initiatives in the works?

TB: We do. [Laughter.] Despite everything, we've been in the pilot phase of one our Arts Rebounding initiatives, which we call the NYFA Leadership Initiative. It's designed, through the use of leadership circles and peer coaching and mentoring, to help arts administrators run their organizations more efficiently in this difficult climate. We're trying hard to keep the program going, and it has been well received. Another interesting new initiative is a collaborative effort with the Municipal Arts Society, the Consortium for Worker Education, and the New City Arts Coalition that is looking at adapting the Handmade in America model to urban areas. Handmade in America is an extraordinary economic and community development model developed in rural North Carolina that has brought economic vitality and attention to the craft artisans in that area. We believe that many New York neighborhoods have similar hidden assets and are fertile ground for cottage industries, and we're trying to look at how the city can soften the negative aspects of gentrification by encouraging spaces that serve not only artists but also artisans.

Additionally, we've long been interested in education issues — art education as well as artist education, at all stages of their careers. So we're working with the Tremaine Foundation to develop a curriculum in conjunction with six artists-training institutions — CalArts, the Parsons School of Design, the Art Institute of Chicago, the School of the Arts at Columbia, the Museum School of Boston, and Virginia Commonwealth University. The initiative is designed to augment and increase basic survival information for graduating MFA students in the design, visual, and media arts.

So despite everything that's going on, we're trying to move ahead.

PND: Looking ahead five to ten years, do you think New York will retain its standing as the cultural capital of the world?

TB: One of the key issues raised in the Culture Counts report is this whole idea of New York as a cultural capital. It's something that can't be taken for granted, but too frequently is. Putting the recession aside for the moment, there's no question that there is a concentration of creative people here in New York that you won't find in too many other places. What's increasingly important is that we look at the environmental factors that affect artists' lives and make that concentration possible.

When we did a survey last year to get a sense of the effect of 9/11 on various disciplines, we learned that 82 percent of the artists in the city had lost over 46 percent of their income. They'd lost their day jobs and their arts jobs. Work that was selling before 9/11 stopped selling after 9/11. We also saw a decrease in arts education activities. As I say, one of the concerns I have about the future of New York City is that too many of us will take this stuff for granted. So our job at NYFA is to keep people thinking about what is happening to the arts and artists in New York. All of the issues that were raised in Culture Counts — space, recognition, jobs — is just as relevant as it was when we commissioned the report. And make no mistake, it's going to be a rough couple of years for artists and arts organizations.

PND: Well, thank you, Ted, for your time this morning.

TB: Thank you.

Kevin Kinsella, PND's managing editor, interviewed Ted Berger in May. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director at mfn@fdncenter.org.