Investing in Our Future

All of us have a stake in making sure the arts flourish

Volume CX, No. 3March, 2010

Paul Molloy

You’ve heard it time and again: New York is the cultural capital of the world. New York has it all: live music, theater, art, dance, opera, literature, museums and more.

It’s true.

The arts industry continues to generate billions in revenue statewide and is certainly not going away.

However, there are unsettling downward trends in funding for arts education and the nonprofit arts sector as well as work and wages declines in all fields.

The causes vary: false beliefs about the importance of arts education and creative sector jobs, outsourcing, greed, hostile attitudes toward organized work and government intransigence.

If nothing is done to reverse this, will artists be able to take advantage of the work opportunities out there, earn dignified wages and make a living exclusively in this industry?

Advances in technology have put cheap keyboards with sequencers in many homes and classrooms, made a cottage industry of karaoke nights in clubs and reduced the number of musicians in orchestra pits, clubs and recording studios nationwide.

Moreover, the popularity of applications like GarageBand and video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band has helped steer young people away from learning to play real instruments and away from developing the appetite for live music.

Most of New York City’s elementary schools don’t offer the entire arts curriculum required by the State.

The New York State Council on the Arts faces more cuts on the heels of two mid-year cuts last year.

At the bargaining table, there is constant downward pressure on artists’ wages and benefits coupled with job insecurity as shows close, arts budgets evaporate and employers find more ways to control costs.

Cash-strapped orchestras are cutting musicians from their rosters. Some are offering fewer concerts per season. And others – like the Brooklyn Philharmonic – have been forced to cancel entire seasons.

Without ongoing and well organized lobbying from those of us in this business, New York risks far more than losing the luster of its “Culture Capital” title. We will lose audiences, artists, arts organizations and infrastructure.

Is all hope lost? No, of course not. In order to reverse any harmful trends, we have to know what they are, where the problems lie and what to do about them.

It starts at home

Developing a love and appreciation for the arts begins at home.

Once upon a time, many members of the middle class had upright pianos in their homes.

There was an entire industry devoted to parlor music: songs arranged for amateur singers and pianists.

Banjos and guitars were also common in many American homes.

They still are, but a lot of the guitars aren’t real.

These days, I encounter more kids seduced by the simplicity and immediate gratification offered by video game culture.

Not long ago, I overheard a teenager brag to his friends how he spent two weeks mastering the Rush tune “YYZ” on Guitar Hero’s highest setting.

How times have changed.

I recall telling my high school buddies in 1982 how I spent two weeks learning and memorizing every tune and every guitar solo on Rush’s “Moving Pictures” album – on a full-scale instrument not made of plastic.

There was a time when music stores offered lessons exclusively on real instruments.

Nowadays, I find many ads – accompanied by favorable anecdotes – online from music stores who offer Guitar Hero lessons. Some even sponsor Guitar Hero competitions.

At a time when many school districts compromise arts programs in favor of doubling down on math and reading to prepare for state tests, music stores are often the last refuge in communities to provide children with weekly music lessons, exposure to live musicians and real instruments.

Doubtless, most music stores continue to do so.

However, it is troubling to see the rest engage in a cynical and disturbing practice that sacrifices those invaluable services in favor of making a quick buck.

Think of the Culinary Institute of America offering courses on the Easy Bake Oven. It would never happen!

For those who suggest that these video games actually inspire kids to learn real instruments, I would ask: What would a child accomplish on a real instrument in the same amount of time devoted to “mastering” a song on a plastic toy? When did a nonhuman, electronic intermediary become a necessity to motivate children to learn a musical instrument? Isn’t that the role of parents and caregivers?

To be clear, there is a place for electronic gadgetry in our culture.

However, it should serve us, not replace us or absolve us of our greater responsibilities to our children.

There is a place for diversion, amusement and recreation.

But videogames are no substitute for real instruments or music instruction.

It continues at school

All four components of New York State’s arts curriculum must be equally, consistently and robustly funded and taught in all our public schools.

The Department of Education’s Arts Education web page has a message from School Chancellor Joel Klein that states: “With ArtsCount we are taking arts education to a new level and holding schools accountable for providing all students with the arts instruction they need and deserve.”

However, in December 2008 at an event in Queens, he said he didn’t think New York City’s school children needed all four components of the arts curriculum required by the state!

Further, the Department of Education’s 2007-2008 Arts in Schools Report revealed that 92 percent of New York City’s school children were not getting instruction in all four art forms – dance, music, theater and visual arts – each year.

Last year, that number dropped to 88 percent. At this rate, we can expect full implementation of the State’s Arts education laws in New York’s City’s elementary schools by 2032!

In middle schools, less than half provide the State Education Department’s arts requirements.

Nearly 30 percent of schools have no certified arts teacher on staff. Unfortunately, this is up from 20 percent the previous year.

In 2008, principals allocated a smaller percentage of their budgets to arts education than the previous year – shrinking to less than 2.9 percent on average.

Also, spending on arts supplies and equipment fell 63 percent from the previous year – a reduction of nearly $7 million.

Lofty language on a government eb site, while hopefully stated, is not enough.

A responsible society requires that such messaging be met with equally substantive, effective and measurable action at all levels of government to ensure that those who follow us receive the well-rounded, fully funded arts education they deserve.

The benefits of a comprehensive curriculum that includes full access to a strong arts education are long known.

A study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation demonstrated the cognitive, attitudinal and behavioral benefits for school children who participate in arts programs. These include:

  • Improved academic performance.
  • Improved attitudes and skills that promote the learning process.
  • Improved general life skills, such as critical thinking, and self-discipline.
  • Improved understanding that one’s behavior has consequences.
  • Improved pro-social attitudes and behaviors among at-risk youth.

A report by the Center for Arts Education revealed that city schools in the top third in graduation rates offered their students the most access to arts education and the most resources that support arts education.

Let us not forget that these are our future artists and our future audiences.

Where will this industry draw its talent from if the next generation is allowed to remain distracted by electronic gadgetry and denied their right to a proper and state compliant education during their formative years?

Currently, there are two pieces of legislation designed to address the failures in arts curriculum funding.

At the city level, Councilman Robert Jackson authored a resolution that would require the Department of Education to maintain a dedicated funding line for arts education. Part of the arts funding failure could be because there is no comprehensive statewide accounting of public school arts instruction.

In Albany, Senator José Serrano and Assemblyman Steve Englebright sponsored a bill that requires the State Education Commissioner to conduct “an audit and report on statewide compliance with state instructional regulations for arts education and establish [a corrective action plan] for schools found to be out of compliance.”

Senator Serrano summed it up best: “No one can deny that continued and positive exposure to the arts and New York’s rich and multifaceted cultural heritage is a sound investment for our children. Let’s not use our current political and budgetary challenges as an excuse to deny them this opportunity.”

Everyone deserves the arts

Our local communities make up the heart of our society. The diverse forms of artistic expression unique to each community provide the soul.

Equal and unfettered access to the opportunities to create and exhibit these art forms is vital to the aesthetic, educational and economic well being of all people.

Nonprofit profit arts organizations are often the best venues for this.

Community theaters, dance studios, art galleries, community orchestras and the like are invaluable resources for amateurs and professionals, bringing communities together.

These organizations provide another important service: they pay their staffers, they buy supplies and they use local contractors, stimulating their local economies.

State funding helps make this possible.

This year NYSCA budget is facing a 15 percent ($6.5 million) cut: from $41.6 million to $35.15 million in grant money. NYSCA also faces a 10 percent cut in operating expenses and a loss of 10 jobs.

In 2005, 2,628 organizations identified themselves as nonprofit cultural institutions. In an average year, the New York State Council on the Arts issues grant money to about 2,600 of them.

If these cuts were to occur, all grant recipients will be negatively impacted.

Arts programs will be cancelled, more people will lose their jobs and local economies statewide would suffer, further exacerbating bad economic circumstances.

No industry will emerge unscathed from this year’s state budget.

However, we can ill afford not to push to keep NYSCA’s budget as it is.

Work, wages and infrastructure

The city’s recording industry has witnessed a severe drop in work over the past decade.

Five large recording studios in Manhattan have shuttered in the past three years.

Film scoring work is being outsourced to Europe, farmed out nonunion to Seattle or is being done in states with better tax credit programs.

Efforts are underway to restore some of the lost work and infrastructure in New York.

At the city level, new City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer has picked up David Yassky’s film production and post-production tax credit resolutions.

There are companion bills at the state level accompanied by an encouraging signal that lawmakers understand the need to pass a more competitive and inclusive tax credit program.

Tempo, an entertainment and music production organization, has a proposal for a managed music and entertainment production center:

The recording production center nonprofit model generates revenue by long-term leasing of space to creative professionals instead of solely selling production time by the hour.

This new business model provides space for composers and producers, etc., akin to the commercial real estate leasing model.

These creative professionals lease the space and sell their services or time for what ever the market will bear It would contain a series of purpose-built spaces for all aspects of production incorporated into a single 10,000 to 12,000 square foot structure in Manhattan. The facility will implement ‘green technologies’ and its centerpiece will be a scoring stage. I’ve referred to it as a 21st Century Brill Building.

New York State AFL-CIO President Denis Hughes supports the proposal and has offered to serve on a committee whose mission is to find the real estate and resources to form a public/private venture to make this proposal a reality.

We need your help!

Reversing these problems won’t be easy. Everyone has a role to play.

Parents and caregivers have control over what products are permitted in their homes.

Educators and their employers are responsible for implementing arts programs that are not only state compliant, but also involve contact with live artists.

When this isn’t possible due to budgetary or ideological obstacles, they have a moral obligation to bring such concerns to the attention of the public.

The media have the same moral obligation to responsibly report on these matters.

Our elected officials have the moral authority and moral obligation to pass legislation to affect the positive change needed.

As for arts funding, our government can’t just cut its way out of a recession.

We must help our lawmakers reject the myth that people and their governments must choose between the arts and economic prosperity.

Both are intertwined. The creative industries are economic assets. Put another way, arts equal jobs. And the arts equal billions of dollars in economic activity statewide.

In New York City alone, the arts industry generated over $21 billion in economic activity, supported over 160,000 jobs, created over $8 billion in wages and $900 million in city taxes in 2005.

Arts equal ancillary spending in other sectors.

In New York City, arts-motivated tourists contributed $5.4 billion in economic activity in 2005, which includes expenditures on food, travel, lodging and shopping.

Our membership can’t bemoan lost work and then sit on the sidelines when it comes time to doing something about it.

We have the means to restore lost work and wages.

It starts by contacting my office and getting involved with our efforts at City Hall, in Albany and Washington.

We have an obligation to educate our lawmakers and work with them to create the legislation that will bring work to and expand employment opportunities in New York.

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and made possible much of the work we have.

We have an obligation to do the same for the generations of artists that will follow in our footsteps.

If you’re inspired to help, please contact my office at or (212) 245-4802, ext, 176.