In a cringe-worthy video posted to Twitter this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced performance art is coming back to entertain beleaguered Gothamites still stewing in pointless lockdown. Between shots of masked people on a freezing street engaged in modern dance, everyone’s favorite, the mayor assured us that culture, the beating heart of New York, is coming back, baby! It’s called the Open Culture program.
Having produced theater in New York City for over 15 years in my prior profession, I had a pretty good idea of what this mess really is, so I looked into it, and I wasn’t wrong. The basic idea is to construct stages or at least staging areas at locations all across town where people can show up and take in a show, a dance, or some slam poetry or something. It promises to bring bad art to the streets — but on the upside, there won’t be anyone there to watch it.
The whole world is a stage, so we’re bringing live performances BACK to New York City! Our streets will be filled with music, performances, and dance thanks to our #OpenCulture program. Applications open March 1: https://t.co/lp0DfJiK7X
— NYC Mayor's Office (@NYCMayorsOffice) February 15, 2021
The city has set aside funding for the project to allow artists to apply for one-day slots to perform at the locations, but all artists are not created equal in this process. Digging into the requirements for applications, I found that artists or companies must have an affiliation with the Cultural Institutions Group. This is a group of 33 major arts and culture organizations that for some reason the city pours funds and resources into year after year. If one of these organizations, all of which are to the left of Bernie Sanders, don’t sign off on you, no slot.
Think about this. At a time when New York City is not allowing anyone to create public performance, they are handing a monopoly to the Cultural Institutions Group to produce all of the performance in what, until recently, was the most vibrant art city in the nation. And we have a pretty good idea of what this art is going to look like.
Expect diversity, and by diversity, I mean screeds against the horrible white supremacist society in which we live. Expect experimental performance, by which I mean incomprehensible hogwash that even the most effete have to try really hard to pretend to enjoy. The video gives us a clue to that. And finally, expect empty seats since these performances are not driven by what audiences actually want but rather what their betters think they should have.
This is not the way to bring arts and culture back to New York City. There is a very simple and much better way to do so: It’s called opening up. Artists come to this city as I did 20 years ago because it is, or was, the hub and hive of talent. It was the place where you could create work on your own and go fight for an audience. Now instead, the mayor and his cronies will pick and choose who gets to be an artist. It will be an abject disaster.
And these performances, these productions, are meant to last one day, 12 hours total including set up and break down. What kind of model is this? How much rehearsal are professional artists supposed to put into a single performance? It is bound to be rough drafts of works that aren’t very promising to begin with. The mayor might argue that at least it is something, but it really isn’t anything but a giveaway to the Cultural Institutions Group. It’s also a slap in the face of real New York artists who just want to get back to work.
This is a model for more than just art. As the city opens, as the pandemic passes, the powers that be will not be quick to let go of the powers they have hoarded over the past year. They will seek to maintain control of all they can. Nothing could do more harm to a city that prides itself on individuality.
De Blasio is right that New York needs its culture back, its theaters, jazz clubs, comedy clubs, and concerts, but this is no way to do it. This is a joke and a bad one at that. Open the city, Mr. Mayor. If you want the art back, that’s all you have to do, and stop it with the street-corner silliness. Nobody asked for it, nobody wants it, and we can already tell it will be laughably bad.