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Downtown Rebound Grounded?
by: Leonard Jacobs

Published by: Back Stage
on: Wednesday, March 20th, 2002

There have been in recent weeks signs either presaging the comeback of the downtown arts scene or perhaps even deeper troubles to come. According to a confluence of events, observations, and statistical reports that paint a mixed economic portrait six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, both scenarios remain entirely possible.

On the one hand, the Government Outreach Committee of DowntownNYC!, a coalition of arts organizations, civic groups, restaurants, and businesses formed in early November, released a "Snapshot Survey of Economic Loss and Job Loss" showing far more distressing concerns for the world below 14th Street than originally thought. At the same time, the number of foundations either creating special funds to aid arts organizations, or retooling their focus to aid such groups, continues to grow. As these foundations begin announcing their grant recipients, millions of dollars in aid stands poised to pour onto the scene.

First, the Snapshot Survey, which considers the arts industry not only as an entity, but within the larger context of the downtown community, was completed at the end of February and released on March 5. While lacking in the breadth of data found in a study released in January by an Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (A.R.T./NY)-finding, among other things, projected losses at nonprofit theatres of $16.3 million for 2002--this survey is more macroeconomic, more community-at-large, in scope.

For example, the survey says "the situation [downtown] is far worse than the picture of the economy at large as represented in a recent report by the New York State Department of Labor, which was released on March 5...private unemployment in the City has increased by 3.8%, compared to a national increase of just 1.5%."
The survey also warns "policy makers against underestimating the effect of Sept. 11 on downtown New York in general and its arts businesses in particular...in issuing these results, we appeal for the creation of more far-ranging surveys of this type in order to more fully ascertain the economic loss and job loss in the downtown community...we also appeal for follow-up surveys to track the pace of recovery...so that policy makers can be alerted if stronger medicine must be applied to bring the City's downtown community, and in particular its arts organizations, back to health."

Drilling Down
According to Jonathan Slaff, who serves as Chairman of the Committee in addition to his work as a theatrical publicist, the geographic dimensions of the survey were largely, if not entirely, limited to below 14th Street, the area quarantined after the attacks. The theatres belonging to downtownNYC!, as well as surrounding businesses, were asked to complete the survey, and nearly 50 restaurants, visual arts organizations, retail stores, museums, New Media outfits, and film-related entities complied. There was also one bakery (for which "food spoilage was a major cause of business loss") and any number of self-employed "artist" professionals.

Among the findings--which Slaff calls "far from large enough to make any grand conclusions"--47% of respondents reported having made layoffs since the terrorist attacks, fully 70% of that figure being part-time workers below Houston Street. "Overall, there was a total reduction in jobs of 17.5%, with a 31% job reduction below Houston Street."

Another survey metric is gross income loss. Here, the figures again are eyebrow-raisers. "Of the respondents who estimated their gross income loss in percentage terms, the mean was 46.5%" for businesses below Houston Street, the survey found. In terms of physical damage, 11 of the 25 respondents whose businesses were also below Houston Street reported physical damage to their property, mainly the remnants of dust and debris.

Slaff particularly notes how the survey assesses the psychological damage to the downtown community. Headlined under "Reasons for the Loss of Business," participants were asked to agree or disagree with various statements, including whether the general economic downturn accounted for their troubles and whether "consumer reluctance" could be related to "fears for personal safety." In both cases, most, if not all, agreed. In addition, some 33% agreed that people remain both "unwilling to get close to Ground Zero" and "unaware of downtown offerings." A larger figure (38%), agreed that "people believe transportation is difficult downtown," and an overwhelming 87% found that "people have less money to spend on arts, culture, and entertainment." Finally, 59% of the participants received "government assistance at the time of their response."

Overall, Slaff calls the findings an important first step-one that will, over time, have wide-ranging public policy implications. "When the State Assembly had hearings in December on tourism--which I witnessed because I testified to the committee," he says, "over and over the Assemblymen asked how much money was lost and how many people were laid off, and we realized there's a data vacuum in tracing the economic impact and job loss resulting from Sept. 11. Coinciding with that, there's been lots of cheerleading from people like Alan Greenspan so that now there's this overall impression that the economy wasn't hit so bad and the arts don't need money. The myth is terribly damaging."
Slaff says he's also concerned that "self-employed artists regularly fall below the radar of data collection, and dealing with that issue is going to be absolutely necessary if we want to trace how the downtown community is recovering. When you think about self-employed professionals, like individual artists and actors, remember that they don't file for unemployment because they don't qualify. They're missed in most statistics."

Downtown Commercial Theatre at a Crossroads
Another figure in downtownNYC! is Scott Morfee, the producer of the Off-Broadway play "Underneath the Lintel"-which, after six months of turbulent box office, remains running at the SoHo Playhouse if only at breakeven. As one of the few commercial producers committed to presenting legit plays in the Off-Broadway arena, Morfee, whose production of "Killer Joe" several seasons back grossed over $1 million, says he formed the coalition in part to save his show. "If downtownNYC! has a legacy, it's the idea that there's better communication between the pre-existing organizations in the downtown scene," he says, citing the relationship between the group and the Lower Manhattan Community Council (LMCC) as an example. "At least now we all talk to each other, which is something that didn't exist before."

Like Slaff, Morfee remains "confounded" by various trends, both as they apply to his specific production and to the downtown arts scene as a whole. "A lot of little problems affect our business, and it can be a bit overwhelming if they hit at the same time," he says. "Specifically, I'm talking about the myopic marketing of Broadway, an apathy in the mainstream media regarding the role and restoration of downtown culture, the unhealthy demand for star-studded casts, the inappropriate channeling of public money, and, specific to `Underneath the Lintel,' a tri-state area full of reviewers who apparently have little of their own instinctive curiosity to see a play that has been running for six months and has much goodwill about it."

Morfee believes, however, that the installation of Kate Levin as the head of the Department of Cultural Affairs may present a bright spot, not just for nonprofit organizations but for the downtown arts community as a whole. "There's a general feeling on the part of most of those I've talked to that once she figures out how she's going to redistribute less money to nonprofit organizations, she's going to figure out how to get everyone together, including producers like me. There has to be one source of leadership, and a lot of people hope she can be that."

Lay the Recovery's Foundation
For now, at least, downtown arts leadership continues to come from philanthropic organizations. On March 12, the Mellon Foundation announced a third round of grants, totaling $28 million, from a one-time $50 million relief fund to assist New York City cultural and performing arts organizations. A spectacular boon for uncertain times, the recipient list now includes 46 arts organizations, 12 museums, New York's three circulating library systems, and the Research Libraries of the New York Public Library, with $43 million of the $50 million now distributed. In a separate statement, the Foundation also recently announced that no further applications for Sept. 11-related assistance will be entertained. The Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, the Apollo Theater Foundation, and such organizations as Manhattan Theater Club, Playwrights Horizons, and Symphony Space are among the many Mellon grantees.

And back in January, A.R.T./NY, the American Music Center, and the New York Foundation for the Arts also received grants from Mellon, approximately $2.65 million apiece, to use as emergency re-grant money to smaller organizations affected by the attacks. On March 7, A.R.T./NY announced the names of their own first-round of re-grant money grantees, some 110 theatre groups in all. These re-grant designations, according to an A.R.T./NY statement, are "designed to help companies recover income lost after the World Trade Center attack due to canceled performances, space rentals, and school tours, as well as rescinded grants, lost subscription sales, and other decreases in revenue." Recipients include companies devoted to the classics (The Pearl Theatre Company, Target Margin Theater), new plays (Clubbed Thumb, MCC Theater), work with children (TADA!, 52nd Street Project), and work with ethnic considerations in mind (Black Spectrum Theatre, Jewish Rep).
Mark Rossier, director of development and marketing for A.R.T./NY, believes that what the Mellon Foundation created with their $50 million fund was a trend, not a case of isolated magnanimity. Indeed, there are a number of examples to point to. For example, while smaller than Mellon's pot of gold, the Lucille Lortel Foundation's $1 million grant program to "provide two-year grants to small and mid-size theatre companies for unrestricted general operating expenses" hardly lacks for luster, since most grants will range from from $10,000 to $50,000 per organization. With over 70 applications now in hand, the recipients will be announced on April 15.

Then there's the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which announced awards ranging from $25,000 to $100,000 to 137 different cultural and arts organizations throughout the city. Totaling $10 million, the funding for those grants came from an anonymous donor. And, Rossier says, it isn't brand-name foundations getting into the act. The Liman Foundation, a small charitable organization headed by philanthropist/art collector Ellen Liman, recently retooled its focus to concentrate on arts-related relief. So while not every sign in the marketplace assures the speedy economic revitalization of downtown, a measure of hope remains around the corner.

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