Community Development Field

The Art$, Part III: Some Quick Fixes

In my earlier posts on this subject, dear reader, I first endeavored to put a finer point on the more than thousand-fold revenue variation between the largest cultural organizations in NYC, and […]

In my earlier posts on this subject, dear reader, I first endeavored to put a finer point on the more than thousand-fold revenue variation between the largest cultural organizations in NYC, and the median cultural organization. Holy stromboli you say? Yes! While the very largest nonprofit culturals have revenues of more than $300 million annually, more than half the groups in my most recent study had revenues of less than $250 thousand. What’s more, the top five very largest organizations received nearly half of all city funding (their share being a whopping $133 million).

In my second post, I spent time looking at a single but very revealing revenue subcategory—“Other Earned Revenues.” By plumbing its depths we can see that the very largest organizations were able to maximize their brand through gift shop sales, high-end event rentals, and investment earnings generated through rather substantial endowments.

Smaller organizations do still earn substantial income through rentals, but I believe their rental audience is very different. In my conversations with small nonprofit culturals, their renters tend to be other small nonprofit culturals who simply don’t have access to a space of their own.

Oh, and the other breadwinner category among small culturals? Touring. You know: developing new work and then shipping it out around the country, and the world.


This all reaffirms some things we already know: that small nonprofit culturals make up the vast majority of all the culturals in NYC; that they are the engines for new and innovative work; and that they don’t get the same kind of love from public sources as the big dogs get.

But we shouldn’t miss a couple of other important indicators: they are also the lead exporters of innovative art from NYC to the lands beyond; and they are the natural habitat for other even smaller nonprofit culturals also in the process of trying to grow. These are very good and important things in NYC’s cultural ecosystem. The only problem is, we haven’t really built the kinds of policies and financial supports suitable to recognize and promote this diversity of activity.

So today, I want to share a couple of ideas. At the recent City Council hearing (jointly held by the Committees for Small Business and Cultural Affairs), NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin pulled up her trusty Cultural Data Project data points to inform the committee members that there were 1,010 groups were recorded in the 2011 cohort. These groups spent:

  • $13.4 million in catering

  • $56 million in repairs

  • $79 million on new equipment

  • $1.6 billon in wages to workers

Some big numbers in here. But I, for one, continue to be frustrated by the fact that we have this really very remarkable data set just sitting there, when we could in fact be breaking down these numbers by organizational size, creative discipline, geography, and a host of other variables that could allow us to dramatically expand our understanding of how nonprofit culturals interact with the local economy.

And this is idea #1: actually fund analysis of the Cultural Data Project data to really examine variations in the economic functioning of nonprofit culturals in ways that are relevant to practitioners as well as policy makers. As a musician and composer who works for a local theater, I would really love to understand how nonprofit cultural organizations similar to mine work. It could actually inform decisions we make about seeking support, defining programs, developing partnerships, operating our theater facility, and a host of other issues.

Which brings us right along to idea #2. As noted above, many small culturals make a significant portion of their annual income from renting to other small culturals. In a sense, the cultural community is a service provider to itself: allowing even smaller nonprofits and individual artists access to space for developing work, teaching, training, workshopping, etc. For instance, thanks to programs like FAB’s Dance Block, our little theater company rents to NYC based dance companies at just $10 per hour. We actually make enough money from this program to significantly support our own rent, and we’re very pleased to be part of supporting other local artists making work.

One of the challenges for us is that we don’t have the capacity to rent out our studio even more. We still have many hours where the studio sits dark. Why? Because the time and cost of maintaining the space (protecting the laminate flooring, mopping, cleaning the bathroom, taking out the trash, and so on) are more than our small organization can support (we have just one full-time staff member). The rental revenue is good, but not enough to justify the time and cost we would incur if we really packed the rental schedule.  Furthermore, we paid for the floor ourselves. Lots of use will wear it out, and it’s got to last us a good, long time. It’s our home.

Now, that floor wasn’t all that expensive. We paid less than $10,000 to put it in, and even with heavy use it could last for several years if properly maintained. Imagine the many, many spaces all over the city that sit dark because the small culturals controlling those spaces don’t have the modest resources it would take to fix them up, maintain them, and keep them in good trim after periods of heavy use.

In a city like NYC, where access to space is a critical issue, we could probably more than double the capacity of our cultural sector to serve itself if we simply built better strategies to support rentals. After that, the only thing we could really use is a central database for helping artists without space access places they could rent. Oh wait, Fractured Atlas has already thought of that! I guess there are no more excuses.

Thanks to resources like the Cultural Data Project, we know a lot more about the nonprofit cultural sector than we used to.  But we're doing a real disservice to the intention of CDP, as well as to the many organizations who dutifully spend hours filling out it's many, many data points, by not using it in ways that actually extend the knowledge and capacities of creative practitioners in practical ways.

If we want to keep NYC the creative capital that it is, we've got pierce the veil.  We have the power to do so, if we can only find the will.

Photo: Downtown Art's new home is still under construction

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