New York City Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer, Laurie A. Cumbo, and Paul Vallone led a virtual hearing September 24 concerning three pieces of proposed legislation from the Committees on Economic Development and Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations. Two of the bills directly concern cultural opportunities in open spaces as arts organizations face the likelihood of continued closures to its indoor venues until next fall.
The first, Local Law 2068, would establish a program similar to that afforded to restaurants regarding outdoor dining. The bill would grant non-profit cultural groups temporary space to open areas (such as parks, pedestrian plazas, public parking lots, and roadways) for outdoor rehearsals and performances. Organizations would be able to obtain permits at no participation fee through an online self-certification process.
The bill, according to co-sponsor and Committee on Cultural Affairs Deputy Leader and Chair Van Bramer, “is forcing a question that the city absolutely has to answer: How hard will we work to save the arts, save culture, and save artists?” The council member also noted that he would pursue amendments to the bill, including an extended deadline past March 31, 2021, as well as allowing organizations to charge for performances in these outdoor spaces to support themselves and their artists.
The other piece of legislation regarding performance opportunities, Local Law 2034, was introduced by Council Majority Leader Cumbo. The proposal calls for a digital hub—including a mobile app—from the Department of Information, Technology and Telecommunications in consultation with the Departments of Cultural Affairs and Parks and Recreation that allows arts institutions to coordinate such use of open spaces and share information on public programs.
Cumbo refers to this potential resource as a “one-stop shop” that would streamline the often complex process of obtaining permits by limiting the amount of departments an organization would need to contact separately. It would also provide a database of available open spaces, searchable by location, potentially including participating independent open properties (such as museum entrances or Lincoln Center Plaza) as well.
During the three-hour hearing, Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Gonzalo Casals noted that what complicates legislation such as these two bills is the flexible nature of performance, with myriad variables contributing the need for outdoor performances to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Van Brammer contested this by underscoring the dire situation the sector faces: “The city isn’t doing enough to save our cultural organizations and institution—particularly small ones…when they are literally at the brink of dying as an organization.”
He continued, “While I understand the logistics are somewhat different [than open dining plans for restaurants], particularly as many of our smaller cultural organizations don't have brick-and-mortar space, that's not a reason not to do open culture. That's a reason to do open culture because they don't have a venue and they need space to perform, to rehearse, and to charge for performances so they can pay artists. So we can get some of that 70 percent of performing artists who are out of work back.”
Several arts and cultural representatives offered testimony, with many directly voicing their support of the proposals at hand. Speakers included Regina Fojas of Times Square Alliance, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ Siri Horvitz, Thomas Ferrugia from The Broadway League, League of Independent Theater Acting Director Aimee Todoroff, and Candace Thompson-Zachery, representing the collective Dance/NYC.
Closing the session, Cumbo called for urgency for arts and culture protections: “I think so often, the cultural community is always forced to say, ‘Wait, there are more important things than culture and art right now.’ We’re always forced into that space, and people have to recognize it can’t be an either/or. They have to happen simultaneously, because the arts are too critical to the foundation of everything—from our soul, to our heart, to our spirit, to the economy, to education, to all of these different elements.”