Construction along the Court Square subway platform in Long Island City, Queens.MARK LENNIHAN / AP / REX / SHUTTERSTOCK
L.Last month, the Mayor of London released a plan to address the growing affordability crisis facing the city’s artists and creatives. The document’s whimsical title, the Cultural Infrastructure Plan, belies Mayor Sadiq Khan’s bold vision to protect and enlarge the spaces where London’s artists, musicians, dancers and other creators produce and share culture.
Faced with similar challenges threatening New York artists and venues, city guides and local officials should consider taking a page out of the London sketchbook.
Mayor Khan underscores the vital role creative industries play within London’s economy and society, and offers an ambitious plan to maintain and expand the city’s cultural infrastructure. This plan recognizes that London’s arts and creative industries have become essential to the city’s overall economy, while also highlighting the enormous threat posed by the affordability crisis that is spreading through the city’s cultural centers. The report relentlessly documents how the city has not done enough in recent years to adequately support spaces for living, working, exhibiting and performing artists.
The echoes of New York City are unmistakable: from rising rents and operating costs to license and funding restrictions, the dance studios, music venues, theaters, workshops and even skate parks that make London a global capital of culture are under unprecedented pressure. London has lost 35 percent of its basic music venues, half of its nightclubs and 61 percent of its LGBT + venues in the past 10 years, according to London’s Deputy Mayor for Culture and Creative Industries. Without major intervention, the city will lose 24 percent of its artist jobs in the next five years.
As in London, artists and arts organizations are the key building blocks of New York City’s broader creative economy, which supports around 300,000 jobs in the five boroughs. But there’s another, more painful, similarity: New York City has also rapidly lost art spaces, affordable studios, and grassroots venues.
The Center for an Urban Future’s 2015 Creative New York report documented at least 24 independent music venues that closed between 2011 and 2015. Galleries and performance rooms have seen similar declines as leases expire and rental, regulatory, and operating costs rise. The rents in the art and creativity-related quarters of the city rose by at least 32 percent between 2000 and 2012, displacing long-term residents and artists alike.
These factors make New York City an incredibly challenging place to live and work as an artist – and add to the appeal of affordable cities, from Detroit to Mexico City.
Two years ago, the New York City Department of Culture launched its own cultural plan, CreateNYC. CreateNYC suggested several thoughtful and important initiatives, including investing in a more diverse and inclusive cultural workforce, increased funding for organizations in low-income communities, and expanded cultural access for people with disabilities – all very valuable goals.
What CreateNYC doesn’t do is tackle New York’s own affordability crisis head on.
Mayor William de Blasio and the Commissioner of the Ministry of Culture, Tom Finkelpearl, can help meet this growing challenge by adopting or adapting some clever ideas from the London approach.
For example, Mayor Khan supports the funding of an independent Creative Land Trust, which finances the purchase of buildings that will be used as permanently affordable workspaces for artists in London. By helping studio owners access capital currently unavailable from other sources, the Creative Land Trust hopes to secure 1,000 affordable jobs in the first five years.
London is also establishing six Creative Enterprise Zones, which will provide funding to create affordable new jobs for artists and creative businesses, while also establishing training programs that will make it easier for local residents to access creative industries jobs.
Mayor Khan set up London’s first Culture at Risk Office, a de facto hotline that cultural sites threatened with closure can contact. The office has already helped save more than 300 venues.
The Mayor also enacted new planning rules to protect London’s nightlife. In recent months, for example, the rules have helped protect a West End nightclub that would have been lost in the course of renovating the building it inhabits. The mayor’s new planning policy has been used to ensure that an entertainment venue becomes part of the new development.
Of course, London isn’t the only source of good ideas for addressing the affordability challenges so many of the city’s working artists and nonprofit arts organizations face. There are other things Mayor de Blasio can do. New York’s public schools, for example, contain thousands of art, dance, music, and theater spaces that are vacant most weekends and two-thirds of every day of the week. The city can share these spaces with local artists and provide affordable work space in communities across the city – and should begin piloting 10 schools this year.
To maintain its place as the world’s creative capital, New York must bravely seek sustainable cultural infrastructure in every community. London’s forward-looking approach should serve as a welcome source of inspiration.
Jonathan Bowles is the Executive Director of the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City-based think tank focused on expanding business opportunity. Eli Dvorkin is the editorial and policy director of the CUF.