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Is Culture Gone at Ground Zero?


September 30, 2005
Is Culture Gone at Ground Zero?

It's not easy to pinpoint the day culture died at ground zero.

Since four cultural organizations were selected for the site a year ago, the notion of giving the arts an integral role has been gradually - and more lately precipitously - slipping away.

Daniel Libeskind's master plan for the former World Trade Center site called for life-affirming, forward-looking cultural activities that would coexist with a memorial's somber acknowledgment of lives lost. Culture was supposed to make the site a hub of round-the-clock activity for tourists and to provide a vibrant gathering place for people who live downtown.

But at this point, culture is being cast as a suspicious interloper. On Wednesday, Gov. George E. Pataki kicked the International Freedom Center off the site, saying that its goal of exploring the realm of human rights had attracted "too much controversy." Relatives of 9/11 victims had argued that such a theme did not belong at ground zero.

The Freedom Center's board rebuffed suggestions that it look for a different location downtown, pointing out that it was conceived specifically for that site and that context.

"During the planning process there was a clear consensus that culture was essential for the revitalization of Lower Manhattan," said Kate D. Levin, the city's cultural affairs commissioner. "Clearly, it needs to be repaired."

Stefan Pryor, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which is supervising the rebuilding effort, said, "The L.M.D.C. is deeply committed to culture." Yet the power of the development corporation's board members is now in question, given that the decision on the Freedom Center was supposed to be theirs. In acting unilaterally, Governor Pataki has signaled that even if the board had voted in favor of the Freedom Center, the decision would have been an insufficient counterweight. John P. Cahill, the governor's point man on ground zero, said in an interview yesterday that culture remained "an integral part of the site plan."

Several prominent members of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, which is overseeing the fund-raising, are reputed to care about culture - Michael D. Eisner of Disney, Kenneth I. Chenault of American Express, Richard D. Parsons of Time Warner and the actor Robert De Niro - but have been notably silent.

A lack of powerful, outspoken advocates seems to have been a significant ingredient in the erosion of culture at the site. By putting the development corporation in charge of choosing the cultural groups, the state failed to enlist an enthusiastic commitment from business leaders and philanthropists, some arts executives say.

"So when they got in trouble, no one was willing to stick their neck out against the families," said Tom Healy, president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

"The arts are critical to ground zero," Mr. Healy said. "There was a process. Maybe the process needs to be looked at, but it certainly shouldn't be abandoned."

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Libeskind said he believed culture must remain part of the master plan to foster activity and to act as a "buffer between commercial, memorial and retail space."

 "This is not just an empty site of sadness," he said. "There has to be something that heals." He added that he supports the governor's decision.

Weeks earlier, another cultural institution on the slate of four, the Drawing Center, was driven from the site by victims' families and New York newspaper accounts asserting that some of the center's exhibitions had been "anti-American."

That leaves the museum building at the northeast corner of the site, designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta, with neither of its original tenants. It was designed specifically to accommodate the Freedom Center and the Drawing Center. The talk now is that it will house a visitors center and some kind of permanent 9/11 exhibition.

The master plan's other major cultural component, a performing arts center, increasingly looks like a pipe dream. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation recently committed $50 million to the project. But given that the designated architect is Frank Gehry, and a Gehry building would cost eight times that amount, the commitment is a drop in the bucket.

Raising the rest seems like a tall order. The two groups designated for the building, the Joyce Theater and the Signature Theater, are modest in size and relatively little known. What's more, the Memorial Foundation has made clear that it intends to put its muscle behind memorializing the victims.

The design process is in limbo. "We have not had any contact at all," Mr. Gehry said in a recent telephone interview, adding, "I can see that it's precarious."

The Joyce, which presents dance, and the Signature, an Off Broadway theater, continue to hone their proposals without any sense of whether they have a real shot at a new home at ground zero.

Nonetheless, Gretchen Dykstra, president of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, said yesterday, "The commitment to the performing arts center is strong and deep."

On a broader level, the public has only the haziest notion of what cultural groups will reside at the site, given the current plans for a World Trade Center Memorial Museum, a Memorial Hall, and contemplation and family rooms.

And some are asking what remains of Mr. Libeskind's master plan. This state of affairs is a far cry from the 2002 "Blueprint for the Future of Lower Manhattan," in which the development corporation called for "a diverse mixed-use magnet for the arts, culture, tourism, education and recreation."

Or Governor Pataki's 2003 invitation to cultural institutions, in which he called the arts "an essential element to creating a thriving urban environment in Lower Manhattan."

Or a February 2004 report in which the development corporation quoted Matthew Arnold: "Culture is acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit."

In remarks before the Association for a Better New York last November, Governor Pataki said the planned cultural buildings would "stand as symbols of the enduring grace and goodness of humanity," adding that the Freedom Center would "convey stories of courage and inspiration."

The first strong signal that this commitment was fading came in April, when John C. Whitehead, the development corporation's chairman, said the performing arts center was effectively on the fund-raising back burner. A $500 million capital campaign that was supposed to benefit the memorial, and both cultural buildings would now exclude the performing arts center, which would instead be part of a "second phase."

Then came a June 8 op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal in which Debra Burlingame - who serves on the memorial foundation's board, and whose brother was killed on 9/11 - called the Freedom Center a "multi-million-dollar insult."

The attack surprised those who had initially feared that the Freedom Center would be simplistically patriotic, because of its name and because Tom A. Bernstein, the founder of the center, is associated with Roland W. Betts, a close friend of President Bush. Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Betts are partners in Chelsea Piers, and both are former owners with Mr. Bush of the Texas Rangers. Mr. Betts is also a director of the development corporation.

Later that month, The Daily News reported that the Drawing Center had once displayed a work obliquely linking President Bush to Osama bin Laden and another showing a hooded victim of American abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. In an editorial that day, the paper demanded, "Show these people the door."

In a July letter to the development corporation, Mr. Bernstein tried to defend the Freedom Center. "We will not 'blame America' or attack champions of freedom," he said. "Any suggestion that we will feature anti-American programming is wrong. We are proud patriots."

Some saw this pledge as an outright capitulation. Eric Foner, a Columbia University history professor, quickly resigned as an adviser to the Freedom Center.

From then on, a contingent of victims' families steadfastly denounced the Drawing Center and the Freedom Center as unpatriotic distractions.

Governor Pataki felt the pressure. With a potential presidential race looming, he had staked his legacy on the rapid reconstruction of ground zero. On July 24, he issued an ultimatum - "We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America" - insisting that cultural institutions guarantee their presentations would not violate "the sanctity of that site."

The Drawing Center quickly realized it was finished; what art organization could retain its identity without being able to show what it wants? The development corporation gave the center $150,000 to conduct feasibility studies on locating elsewhere.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg voiced disappointment this week that officials did not find a way to make their peace with the Freedom Center. He has otherwise stayed out of the controversy, a noticeable absence given his widely known commitment to culture. But the mayor long ago made a bargain with Mr. Pataki to let the governor take the lead at ground zero in exchange for a free hand in planning the future of the Far West Side.

Madelyn Wils, a development corporation director, said yesterday, "I'm deeply disappointed that we could not have worked out a way to have the Freedom Center on the site."

Mr. Gehry said of the squabbles, "From the beginning, I thought it was going to be messy, given all the politics, all the people you have to please."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company