Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What we learned from Crain's recent arts forum

A president, a councilman and a board member walked into Con Edison Auditorium. Here's what they told us about New York City's vibrant-but-challenged arts and culture scene.

Crain's recently convened another in its continuing series of newsmaker gatherings, a breakfast targeted at the city's arts and culture community.
The featured guests, each the focus of an armchair chat, were Jed Bernstein, president of Lincoln Center; Shelly Lazarus, chairwoman emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather and a member of the board of Lincoln Center; and Jimmy Van Bramer, chairman of the City Council's Cultural Affairs and Libraries Committee. An announcement that day that the de Blasio administration plans to study diversity in the arts had the subject very much on everyone's mind, so we'll start our lesson there.


Shelly LazarusPhoto: 
MR. BERNSTEIN: Any responsible cultural institution has to care about diversity and must lament the fact that in general our boards do not represent the full makeup of our city as well as they should. But the path to a solution is not easy or clear. Nonprofit institutions continue to be challenged with having to find productive board members of all colors, creeds and ethnicities. There tends to be a small pool of usual suspects who are considered. We have to work harder at engagement. We have a responsibility to do more than say, "You are welcome here, either as board members or audience members."
MR. VAN BRAMER: This does not have to be punitive. It is not a game of gotcha. But it will make our organizations stronger. And as the city is now rightfully looking at inequality, it is appropriately looking to us as part of the solution. We should be developing and investing more in creating pipelines for future cultural leaders both in our schools and at the university level. We should be going into neighborhoods all over the five boroughs and making culture available to everybody. But there are going to have to be resources allocated to allow us to achieve these lofty goals. None of this happens without appropriate investment in the arts.
MS. LAZARUS: I am not that interested in demographic diversity because that's kind of superficial. There is this concept of cognitive diversity—people who think differently, people who have different skills, people who see the world in slightly different ways, people who have had experiences that are different. And when you bring all those people together, you get a board that is so rich in what it can contribute. I think bringing that dimension as you're thinking about forming a board is really important.


Mr. Bernstein: The so-called millennial nonprofit challenge has a lot to do with engagement. Young people have diverse interests and lots of activities available to them. Now on a summer Saturday, 20-somethings look to see what is happening on Governors Island. Tens of thousands of people, most of them under 40, go there to see concerts. This idea that millennials want to sit home and consume entertainment on screens the size of my hand is simply not true.
So how do we—particularly more established institutions—make a compelling case for why what we are doing matters? If people actually knew the entire range of what Lincoln Center presents, they would be amazed. Our challenge is to get that word out. Our brand is associated mostly with Beethoven, Balanchine and the Metropolitan Opera. Well, guess what? We also have 175 free concerts a year in the park, free programming at the Atrium across the street, music that ranges from hip-hop to salsa with everything in between. A lot of it is free. There is a lot going on. It is on us to communicate better.


Jed BernsteinPhoto: 
Mr. Bernstein: We have ratcheted up our partnership program in much the same way sports leagues do it. Hopefully we are going to announce a couple of deals in the next few weeks.
Sponsorships put you in a whole different mindset. You are talking to corporate marketing departments, not philanthropy departments. That means you have to bundle assets in a way that helps build out other people's businesses, and you have to be comfortable with that. One of the conversations we have been having at the board level is what that means: If a car company says it will give Lincoln Center billions of dollars to put a car on top of our fountain, we would have to think about it, right? That's a lot of money. Don't worry; we are not putting a car on top of the fountain. A motorcycle, maybe, but not a car.


Jimmy Van BramerPhoto: 
MR. BERNSTEIN: We have flirted with live streaming of our events. Our average viewership before last summer was maybe 5,000 to 6,000. Then we did the Pete Seeger Memorial—a folk concert with a clear, targeted audience. A lot of websites market to folk-music fans, and we distributed on a lot of them—and for that concert we had 35,000 views. So now we have made the commitment to stream every live free event, approximately 175 shows a year.
On campus, we have to be able to meet expectations of those under 40, who know nothing other than the digital world in terms of entertainment. Imagine coming to campus with the newly downloaded Lincoln Center app—available June 1. Your phone is not only a tour guide, but an interactive tool: You point it at Avery Fisher Hall and you see video of what is happening there that night. And how great would it be to someday have an app tell you which bathroom has the shortest line at intermission?
MS. LAZARUS: There is not an organization in the world that shouldn't have people [on the board] who can prod them about technology, who can goad them to do things that are more digital. A third of the conversation now at any board meeting is about digital.


Mr. Van Bramer: We are one of the last big cities not to have a cultural plan. Councilman Steve Levin and I have been working on this for almost three years. We have had numerous hearings. We had a meeting with the cultural-affairs commissioner and the administration six or eight weeks ago. I think we are about ready to see a near-final draft, and my hope is that the City of New York will pass a plan this year, maybe even as early as spring or summer.
It is absolutely imperative that we are allocating resources in ways that promote the fight against inequality and that reach every single child in every single neighborhood in the five boroughs, and that we are tying economic development to culture and the arts, making sure artists can continue to live and work and create in the city. We want to make sure all economic development has the arts and culture as a key piece. We are making the case very profoundly to this administration.
It was very exciting that the mayor included in his State of the City speech the 1,500 affordable units dedicated for artists. That's just the beginning. The cultural plan will help that along even further in making sure we are not just talking about it once, but always talking about live-work space for artists.
In fact, the plan will be a living, breathing document. It doesn't go on a shelf; it is an ongoing analysis of what we are doing and how we are doing it and ways that we can improve.


MR. VAN BRAMER: IDNYC, the municipal ID card, is one of the most important legislative achievements of the past year. It is too early to see the impact, but, as you know, something like 250,000 people have applied for the card. Maybe 15,000 have already received one. Over the next several months, we will start to be able to measure the impact on the participating cultural organizations. Still, I think it's a win-win for everybody.
A family in my neighborhood wrote to me to say they were so excited about the ID because they had a couple of young kids and really wanted to go to all of these great museums and science-based institutions and zoos and gardens, and they never thought they could make it happen until now. Families like that are going to have their lives dramatically improved.
A version of this article appears in the March 16, 2015, print issue of Crain's New York Business.

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