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Culture Politics as Usual


Seems the Death Star has met its match:

The Final Days of AT&T 

We're all moved in and expecting two more resident artists to join Jan Gerber this week. In the meantime it's culture politics as usual in Lower Manhattan as you can read in the text below. Lots of promises and no money:

October 31, 2005

Arts Groups Pessimistic Over Prospects for Culture Downtown

For downtown arts groups struggling with the void left by the 9/11 attacks, a 2002 "blueprint for renewal" seemed full of promise. Drafted by the agency in charge of rebuilding in Lower Manhattan, it pledged to develop "a critical mass of dynamic, enticing and diverse cultural venues" there.

The agency, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, also promised to help cultural institutions in the area - and those that might be thinking of relocating downtown - to find the sites and the money they would need to expand or move.

Three years later, the development corporation has accomplished practically none of the above. The number of cultural groups, including libraries, below Canal Street now, according to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization, has plummeted to 112, from 200 before 9/11. The $45 million that the development corporation set aside last May for cultural groups that are not part of the master plan at ground zero has yet to be distributed.

Tom Healy, the president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, expressed frustration over the delay. "Nothing has happened," he said. "There is no plan. There is no group that's been chosen to help them give that out yet. And it would make a huge difference now, that kind of money."

 Given the gradual evaporation of planned cultural organizations at the ground zero site itself, many downtown arts groups are pessimistic.

The Freedom Center was dropped from the site last month by Gov. George E. Pataki in response to objections from the families of some 9/11 victims who wanted a strictly patriotic memorial focus; the Drawing Center, which had sought to relocate from SoHo, was forced out for similar reasons. Both had been chosen in June 2004 to share a museum building designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta.

 "We're all pretty upset about it," said Holly Block, the executive director of Art in General, an alternative art space on Walker Street. "It's very problematic that it's been politicized."

Contributing to the bleak picture, a performing arts center that was to be designed for the ground zero site by Frank Gehry and shared by the Joyce Theater, which presents dance, and the Signature Theater, an Off Broadway company, is on the back burner. And Anita Contini, the point person for culture on the development corporation, resigned from that post in July and is unlikely to be replaced.

While many arts groups have stuck it out downtown and several are trying to upgrade their operations, all say they could use more help. Three-Legged Dog, a media and theater group, has been struggling since Tower 7 fell on its headquarters at 30 West Broadway. The company cut its staff from 27 to 2, suspended salaries for nine months and stopped production for a year and a half.

The group decided that the route to survival was building a new home. It has managed to raise $3 million toward a $4.6 million arts complex, now under construction at 80 Greenwich Street. But there is still $1.6 million to go.

Three-Legged Dog said it had asked the development corporation for help but never heard back. "We've had a request to them for about three years now," said Kevin Cunningham, the company's executive artistic director.

Members of Dance New Amsterdam, a nonprofit dance service organization, say they asked the development corporation for $1 million two years ago but also never received any response. "I think everyone is so discouraged about L.M.D.C.," said Charles D. Wright, the group's executive director. Still, the dance group managed to raise $4.5 million over the last few years for a new 25,000-square-foot space, now under construction at 280 Broadway in the Sun building. Such arts groups have managed to endure mostly through contributions from various foundations, individuals and local downtown groups, like the cultural council, which was given $5 million from the Sept. 11 Fund to distribute in the first three years after 9/11. "With the cultural plan stalled at ground zero, it's all the more important that the rest of what goes on culturally gets supported," Mr. Healy said.

The development corporation has been noticeably absent from this effort, arts groups say. "They've said all along that they are going to be helping people in the neighborhood," said Mr. Cunningham of 3-Legged Dog.

"If some attention could be focused on the smaller existing projects, we would be seeing a lot more evidence of recovery in Lower Manhattan," he added. "All of these organizations with budgets under $5 million are cash based. We can't wait. We have to move or die."

John C. Whitehead, chairman of the development corporation, said in an interview that he had received proposals for cultural ventures downtown from some 100 organizations about two years ago. "We haven't done much with them because our focus was on the cultural organizations that we picked," he said, referring to the four groups originally selected for ground zero itself. "We have begun to concentrate again on that."

He added: "Cultural programs are alive and well in Lower Manhattan. They have done very well. There have been no crises that money needed to resolve."

Stefan Pryor, the president of the development corporation, said his agency was preparing to begin distributing the $45 million designated for off-site arts groups. "We are in the process of developing an approach," he said. "I would characterize it as 'soon.' "

He added, "Culture is critical, and one of the L.M.D.C.'s highest priorities is ensuring that culture continues to flourish downtown."

The development corporation helped some organizations just after the terrorist attacks with grants to help them get through the first few months. But none have received any aid since. The corporation has been helping the Drawing Center look for space since the center was ousted from ground zero. The Drawing Center, now on Wooster Street, is considering three alternative sites downtown. Still, the smaller arts groups have pressed on, marshalling their limited resources. When Collective Unconscious, an art collective and performance space, was planning a $125,000 upgrade of its Church Street headquarters, the group did not even try to get help from the development corporation. "We're an all-volunteer organization - there is no one on staff," said Caterina Bartha, a founding director. "We just felt we were too small."

Instead, the group received $35,000 from the Department of Cultural Affairs through Councilman Alan J. Gerson's office and $40,000 from the cultural council, Ms. Bartha said.

And several cultural groups are leery of the labor-intensive prospect of having to apply for help all over again. As for what cultural component might end up in the museum building at ground zero, Mr. Whitehead said he planned to meet with the Smithsonian Institution "to see if they have an interest in giving us any ideas." He also mentioned the New-York Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York and the New York State Museum in Albany - which has an exhibition of 9/11 artifacts - as institutions that might play a role in programming.

That such a new museum could encounter another round of protests is unlikely, Mr. Whitehead maintains. "We have a family advisory committee now that includes most of the people who were our opponents," he said. "We're very conscious of what won't fly."

 Raising money for the museum and performing arts center on the site falls to the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, which is also raising money for the site's memorial. But the foundation has made clear that this is not its most pressing concern.

"We're focused on the memorial and the memorial museum," said Gretchen Dykstra, the president of the Memorial Foundation, in a recent television interview.

But Mr. Whitehead, who is also chairman of the memorial foundation, said of Ms. Dykstra's comments: "I think her job is to raise the money, and our job is to decide what gets built on the site."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company