the role of art in new york's renaissance -- 11/07/16

Today's selection -- from Artistic Citizenship Ed by David J. Elliott, Marissa Silverman, Wayne D. Bowman. At the very nadir of New York's financial crisis in the 1970s, artists arose as a powerful catalyst to the city's renaissance. Institutions that were founded during that period, often in dangerous and dilapidated areas, include El Museo del Barrio (1969), the Bronx Museum of Art (1971), PS 1 (art installations, 1971), PS 122 (performance space, 1980), the Queens Museum (1972), the Museum of the Moving Image (building set aside for this use in 1982), the Joyce Theater (1982), the Caribbean Cultural Center (1976), the New Museum (1977), and the Harlem School of the Arts (1965). The story is retold here by the renowned scholar and administrator Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, at the time the new executive director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, then Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and currently the president of Spelman College. Campbell argues that the success of these institutions in this renaissance came from their unyielding focus on excellence in the art itself:

"On October 29, 1975, a now iconic New York Daily News headline read: 'Ford to City: Drop Dead.' New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, and President Gerald Ford had announced that a federal bailout was out of the question. Mired in debt, indulging in questionable financial practices, and spending more money than it collected in tax revenues, the city was on the verge of collapse. New York, of course, did not collapse; instead, contrary to the expectations of any number of seasoned observers, the city turned itself around. Relying on a rare combi­nation of civic activism and public leadership, the Big Apple not only halted its downward spiral of insolvency but also underwent a reimagining. A rebuilt physical environment, and a reconfigured social, civic, and cultural landscape, over time, was manifest in the slow transformation of once-blighted neighbor­hoods in all five boroughs.

"A key factor over the past 40 years in the renaissance of some of New York's most ravaged neighborhoods was the role played by the city's individual art­ists and arts organizations. Ironically, in the 1960s and 1970s, as manufacturing exited, as the middle class fled to the suburbs, and as the city became a warehouse of abandoned real estate, with its bridges and tunnels sagging, its subway system broken, crime on the rise, and a drug epidemic raging, a surprising number of artists and arts organizations chose as home exactly those neighborhoods hard­est hit by the financial crisis. And, as this chapter will argue, they formed the bedrock foundation for the cultural, social, and civic rebirth in the 21st century of neighborhoods as varied as the South Bronx, Flushing Meadows Park, Astoria, Long Island City, Chelsea, the East Village, Harlem, SoHo, Tribeca, Fort Green, Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass (DUMBO), and Williamsburg. ... Artists and institutions together became signif­icant players in the city's physical reconstruction and in the rebuilding of neigh­borhoods that, in the popular imagination at least, were irredeemable.

"To understand how utterly irredeemable New York City appeared in the pop­ular imagination, one need only turn to the journalism, paintings, films, and novels from the era. Auletta (1980) describes many dimensions of the city's fiscal crisis, one of which was the scale of abandoned real estate. Auletta calculated that in 1979 alone, as a result of abandonment, the city would have been forced to take over 50,000 to 60,000 buildings, housing over a half-million citizens. That number did not take into account the abandoned, boarded-up, vacant prop­erties that were multiplying at a frightening rate. ...

"Despite the city's gloomy image, and despite the prevalence of abandonment and neglect in New York, the artists and citizens who led the institutions listed here -- along with many other arts organizations -- were the epitome of civic commitment and care. Remarkably, they launched survival strategies at a time when city government was impoverished and the institutions themselves were as hand to mouth as the communities they served. ...

"The long-term success of the institutions [involved] is the result, first and foremost, of the care and tending of an art form's intrinsic value. The mastery of a given discipline, meticulous presentation/production values, and maintenance of professional standards are evident in all of the institutions that succeeded and persisted. Preserving and nurturing intrinsic value and partnering the intrinsic with the instrumental are legacies of this era. Sited in depleted communities, the insur­gent institutions that survived both brought and built on traditions of excellence."


Oxford University Press


Artistic Citizenship: Artistry, Social Responsibility, and Ethical Praxis


Ed by David J. Elliott, Marissa Silverman, Wayne D. Bowman


Copyright Oxford University Press 2016


41-42, 45-47
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