Expert Eye

Former New York Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin on the Value of Public Art

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Former New York Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin on the Value of Public Art
Cultural Commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg, Kate Levin

Coming into office in the months following 9/11, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wielded art as a powerful tool to rebuild the city’s confidence, one of the most visible ways being his sponsorship of ambitious public-art projects. This culminated in 2005 with the massive success of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Central Park Gates, which, in addition to boosting civic spirit, drew 4 million visitors to explore its 7,500 billowy orange panels and brought in $254 million in tourist money. In his following mayoral terms, Bloomberg continued to lend the City’s heft to the arts and in total directed $2.8 billion to cultural organizations—not to mention over $200 million of his own money to philanthropic causes. In turn, the sector revved to life as a financial motor, generating $21 million per year. 

But there was someone else operating the many different levers of artistic influence behind the curtain. As the coommissioner of the single largest cultural funding agency in the country, Kate D. Levin headed New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs for 12 years, during one of the most economically austere periods in the city’s history. Despite this climate, she increased the number of nonprofit arts organizations receiving support and grant awards both by more than 30 percent. Projects in most recent memory include the vast expansion of the Queens Museum and Tatzu Nishi’s encasing around the gargantuan Christopher Columbus statue on 59th street. 

Since leaving City Hall, Levin has joined Bloomberg Associates, a new consultancy firm lead by members of Bloomberg's administration, as an advisor to municipal governments across the globe. In their gleaming offices on the Upper East Side—decked out with art, including a Jeff Koons in the atrium—Levin spoke with Artspace about her time serving the city, the importance of numbers in the arts, and whether arts organizations should be worried following the "arts mayor" departure from office. 

As the person most responsible for carrying out the many public art projects across the city, from the pop-up pianos to the legendary Gates, what role do you see public art as having played in the city, and what is its chief benefit to the public? 

When the history of New York is written, The Gates will be remembered as the first time after 9/11 that New York was on the front page around the world for something that didn’t have to do with disaster or destruction. For the 16 days that it was up—and even the fact that it was temporary was noteworthy—people had something to talk about, and everyone’s opinion was equally legitimate. It sparked a kind of conversation that, particularly for cities, is so important, creating a kind of level playing field for everybody to take part in something.

At its best, public art gives people a sense of ownership of civic space and can remind people to be more attentive to what’s around them. It becomes a really important vehicle for civic dialogue too, because it’s not about money, and it’s not about politics.

You have worked with living artists through the Public Art Fund, including younger art stars like Olafur Eliasson. Did you ever take into account the impact a public art project might have on a living artist’s market? 

An artist’s market value was never a consideration, and we ended up working with artists at all points in the market spectrum. One of the most successful projects, the pop-up pianos, was done with a fledgling organization, Sing for Hope. They had done some terrific arts education programs working in schools, but this was their first foray into public art. When you work for the government, it is not about the financial market place. It is really about the market place for ideas that enhance the cityscape.

In a city that makes enormous amounts of money off of its art market, what is the healthy balance to be struck between free public art and the private sector? 

I don’t think there’s a formulaic balance to be sought, but in the visual arts, the public and private sectors reinforce one another. In fact, the public sector is in many ways the newcomer—in the Medici days, it was all about private patronage. So developing a dynamic public sector, with lots of access to art, is one of the contributions of newer cities like New York. You have to make it congenial for artists to make work, and it is never going to be easy to do that. One of the ways of making that possible is by having a marketplace that values art and generates some financial support for artists.

It is really important to have robust, publicly accessible institutions and opportunities for people to genuinely learn about, understand, enjoy, and feel ownership of the whole creative sector. It’s also ultimately about talent. Talent doesn’t come from any particular socio-economic quadrant, and you need to be able to engage as many people as possible.

New York is widely considered to be the art capital of the world, yet even for those who live in the city, art can sometimes seem to be out of reach and elitist. How did you contend with this dynamic, and what projects do you think most widened the field of access?

The blessing and the curse of art is that it’s special. Almost by definition, that means putting it in a kind of private space, moving it out of the way of common traffic. There are lots of amazing works that need that attention because they are actually technically fragile, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are taking them out of someone’s reach. You can get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a penny, no questions asked. However, that does mean that someone has to walk into that space and feel welcome.

A lot of what we spent time doing in office was making sure the general public was aware of what was available to them. While you can’t make someone love art, you can make sure that they understand that it is available to them at a whole range of price points. So we developed a host of ways to get that information to the public, including 311, the NYC&Co website, and seasonal mayoral press conferences announcing free and low-cost activities. 

Part of your job entailed allocating money to arts organizations across the city, ranging from projects that recycle art supplies for public schools to path breaking initiatives with institutions boasting multimillion-dollar budgets. How did you decide where the money went?  What do you think an ideal art ecosystem should look like in a metropolis likes New York City?

The city owns 33 cultural institutions and funds another 900 more through a competitive review process. For one, we increased the number of organizations receiving money by about 30 percent. And we also increased the dollar amounts that they were receiving by 30 percent. You want to really encourage this sector to be as creative and thoughtful as possible, and create the conditions for a huge variety, diversity, and tolerance for ideas.

In terms of what makes the best kind of cultural ecology, it really comes down to being welcoming to artists and being welcoming to audiences. The thing in between artists and audiences are organizations. So it’s vital to keep organizations healthy and make sure that they are a really innovative and effective platform for artists and audiences to meet each other. 

During the financial crisis, a number of institutions were forced to shut down, but as Commissioner you managed to rescue many arts organizations ensuring that New York maintained its vibrant arts sector. With some time passed since leaving City Hall, what is your perspective on prioritizing art in periods of austerity?  

I don’t think it is ever easy for nonprofits. But, in my 12 years as commissioner, I don’t think we ever lost an organization solely because of an economic downturn. There were always other longer-term managerial or creative issues at play. That being said, the city recognized the enormous value of the cultural field in providing uniquely valuable services for New Yorkers—and the importance of remaining a stable and responsive funder.  

Bloomberg was known as an "arts mayor," often appearing at MoMA galas and inaugurating major art events like the Armory Show art fair, which he personally introduced annually with a speech advocating for the city's vital art scene. As a billionaire, Bloomberg was also able to build an extensive art collection of his own. The new mayor, Bill de Blasio, comes from a very different background and already has been sending a different message to the city. He did not, for instance, attend this year's Armory Show opening, and he has not been a visible presence as yet in the art world. What do you think this difference in mayoral tendencies will mean for the way that art, including public art, will be championed by this administration?

I can’t predict what the future will bring. But I do think the city’s cultural sector is a really vital part of what makes New York special. That is not about the personal predilection of an elected official—it is about a city service.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife is a poet. I think there is a lot of appreciation and respect for the value of the sector. Everyone has to figure out how to manage government and there are lots of different ways of understanding what services are important and how to deliver them.

What is Mr. Bloomberg’s greatest art legacy for the city?

His charge to all of his agencies was to do things on the merits, with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, to the best interests of the city. In terms of the arts, the legacy is that you really can accomplish a lot of things that might otherwise be easy to say “no” to. His mandate was to say “yes” whenever you can because there’s an endlessly important benefit to the city of being a place where really creative, interesting people want to come.

One of the most prominent legacies of Bloomberg is his generous funding of the arts, over $2 billion spent transforming the institutions across the city in his time. But in addition, Bloomberg was able to bolster budgets through private resources—distributing $32 million to over 250 arts organizations across the city over the course of his time. Arts groups have expressed anxiety over losing his funding as he starts to lend support to issues on the national stage. Do you think they are right to be nervous?

I think it is wonderful when someone is a generous and really smart philanthropist. That kind of generosity is something for people to appreciate. You can always worry about what is going to happen tomorrow, but I think that if organizations do great work, they will always attract enlightened and committed funders. 

Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has called itself as first and foremost data-driven. You have also spoken about the arts in very pragmatic terms—that in New York, the cultural industry is a robust small business sector and a key to both quality of life and the economy, driving tourism and creating jobs. Today, you are the inaugural fellow of the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) in Dallas, which has published the most thorough data set created on the arts industry. Why is data key to thinking about the arts, and how is that guiding the next chapter of your career?

For a really long time, the arts sector has been resistant to data analysis because of a sense that it will be insufficiently nuanced—it won’t appreciate the complexities of the sector. Art is often subjective; data is understood to be objective, etc. But I think, in the course of that resistance, the sector has really done itself a disservice. If you don’t have any kind of portrait of what is going on in the field, you can’t make intelligent decisions on how to be useful and you certainly can’t form an advocacy point of view. And at times of stress for the field, like periods of economic contraction, it’s essential for supporters to be able to point to trends and say, “Hey, this is more than just anecdotal, and it is not just my personal point of view. This set of factors is starting to materially impact whether or not art will get made or the public will have access to it.”   

What’s great about NCAR is that really smart researchers are aggregating a bunch of different kinds of data sets. They are producing information that will give a portrait of what’s happening in the field back to institutions and individuals, helping them make better decisions. And hopefully, over time, the value of the sector and what it needs to thrive will become clear to people who might not be specifically attuned to cultural issues but are responsible for broad policy decisions.

Since leaving your role as Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, you’ve joined Bloomberg Associates, a new consulting service founded by Bloomberg to advise cities across the globe. How does your experience with the vibrant art scene in New York translate to other municipalities—particularly in a global context? Do you believe New York is an experiment that can be replicated? 

Mike Bloomberg’s conviction is that cities are the most potent engine of change right now, and anything that we can do to help drive that is going to be valuable. At Bloomberg Associates, we are experienced problem solvers, so it is not so much about saying, “You need to be like New York,” as it is, “Gee, we’ve managed through lots of different issues. Some of your dynamics are similar. How might these kinds of challenges be faced?” It is not just about ideas in the abstract.  It’s about understanding that, in the daily life of a city, there are a whole bunch of stakeholders whose problems need to be acknowledged and addressed.

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