If Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s cuts to the city’s cultural institutions go through as planned, high-profile galleries could be shuttered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A chunk of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx could be closed to the public. Ticket prices for the City Center’s “Encore!” Broadway revival series could soar. Perhaps most ominously, the curtain could fall for good on the New York City Opera’s traveling performance of Babar: An Adventure in Scales , in which the diminutive king of the elephants introduces the joys of music to kids, currently on tour throughout the city’s elementary schools.
These predictions are among the many doomsday scenarios that were sketched by leaders of some of Manhattan’s top cultural institutions, who spoke out about the cuts in a series of interviews with The Observer . Mr. Bloomberg’s austerity budget, released last month, calls for a 20 percent cut in funding to the city’s largest institutions and a 15 percent cut to the smaller ones.
In recent weeks, leaders of high-profile institutions like the Met, Carnegie Hall, the New York State Theater, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the outer-borough botanical gardens have been privately taking stock of what looks to be an extremely grim situation. Now the real-life implications of Mr. Bloomberg’s proposed cuts are sinking in, and they are causing widespread panic among leaders in the arts community. They are launching a public campaign to persuade City Hall to reconsider the cuts, arguing that they will inflict a budgetary blood bath on organizations that not only bring in huge sums of revenue for the city, but are already getting slammed by a post–Sept. 11 decline in tourist traffic and an attendant plunge in corporate and philanthropic contributions.
“We are reeling from the loss of revenues after Sept. 11,” said David McKinney, the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “If these cuts go through, and if attendance does not return to a normal level, programs will have to be reduced accordingly. This will postpone indefinitely our ability to draw crowds back to the city, eroding the economic base and resulting in a much slower recovery citywide.”
“It’s a great shame,” added Sherwin Goldman, the executive producer of the New York City Opera, which is facing the loss of nearly a fifth of its $800,000 in city funding. Mr. Goldman said that if the cuts went through, one of the first things to go would be programs that serve New York City schoolchildren-such as the opera that the troupe performs each year throughout the city’s elementary schools.
“I’m a New Yorker, so I’m used to bad things happening sometimes,” Mr. Goldman said. “The thing that will have to go is educating kids. We hate to do that, but that’s what we’ll have to do.”
Of course, every group feeling the cold edge of the budget ax is sounding a similarly mournful dirge. But the situation for these cultural leaders is unique, and is in many ways unprecedented at City Hall. They are trying to manage an extraordinarily delicate political task: challenging the budget of a Mayor who not only controls their city funding for the next four years, but who has the added leverage of being one of their most generous private-sector supporters.
“There’s a clear reluctance on the part of leaders of cultural institutions to criticize a Mayor who has personally given them many millions of dollars,” said one longtime patron of the arts who confers regularly with the heads of these institutions. “He is a huge donor, and no one wants to prejudice his future largesse.”
It is impossible to overstate the shock in elite cultural circles over Mayor Bloomberg’s cuts. The reductions are coming from a man who is, in many ways, one of their own. Mayor Bloomberg goes to the opera with Beverly Sills, has been a regular presence on the plaque-and-ballroom circuit, and gives huge amounts of money to all sorts of cultural groups. His daughters’ names grace the Met’s Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Arms in Armor Gallery, and the logo of his company, Bloomberg L.P., adorns the museum’s audio guides. Making matters more awkward, Bloomberg L.P. continues to give generously to some of the same institutions that are seeing their city funding cut by the company’s founder. For instance, Bloomberg L.P. currently gives annual donations to the Met and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, among others.
These cultural leaders are well aware that Mr. Bloomberg’s checkbook will outlive his Mayoralty. And so they’re tactfully refraining from personal attacks on him and taking special care to acknowledge the extraordinary challenges he faces as he seeks to close a budget gap estimated at between $5 billion and $6 billion.
“We are in this situation with a very good friend who has been extremely generous-and who is now in charge of the city budget,” Mr. McKinney said of Mr. Bloomberg. “We’re very sympathetic with the pressures that he faces. But for the good of the city and the institutions, we have to do everything that we can to make sure our priorities are understood.”
No amount of tact can obscure the fact that a pressure campaign is underway. It’s being organized by the Cultural Institutions Group, which comprises 33 citywide organizations that operate in facilities or on land owned by the city. On May 16, the leaders of 10 Manhattan institutions will argue against the cuts at a press conference, one of five scheduled for each of the five boroughs. (A Brooklyn press conference took place on May 7.) The group has hired lobbyist Ethan Geto to make its case to the media and will be circulating a lengthy report detailing the group’s position to the city’s editorial boards.
“We will call upon elected officials, opinion leaders, artists and anyone else we think can help encourage the Mayor to be flexible,” said Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the head of the Cultural Institutions Group.
Mayoral Ad Libs
When the heads of these institutions heard the bad news in Mr. Bloomberg’s budget presentation last month, some of them at first convinced themselves that the cuts were merely part of City Hall’s annual budget drama. It goes like this: The Mayor opens with a deep chord of doom, setting off a round of hoots and catcalls from the drunken groundlings otherwise known as City Council members. In the second act, the groundlings are allowed to scurry around onstage and make their sympathies known to the Mayor. Finally a compromise is reached, and the show concludes with a curtain call in which the restoration of funds is announced to rousing applause.
This time around, to the immense chagrin of cultural leaders, the Mayor isn’t following the script. Indeed, after furiously lobbying City Hall and meeting privately with Bloomberg aides, the leaders have reached a rather frightening realization.
“I think they’re deadly serious,” Mr. McKinney said.
This point was driven home at a recent meeting of cultural leaders that took place at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street several weeks ago, an off-the-record gathering that several present described as a wake-up call. At the meeting, the heads of several dozen of the city’s cultural institutions-including the Met, Carnegie Hall, the Natural History Museum and others-sat patiently in the audience as Dan Doctoroff, the deputy mayor for economic development, delivered a speech. Standing at the podium, he riveted his audience with extensive praise for their institutions. He told of his initial distaste for the city upon moving here, and added that his view of New York shifted dramatically after he visited 22 of the 33 institutions in the city-funded group. His listeners were buoyed by the speech: He understood their value to the city! Surely they’d be spared!
But no. After extolling the value of the cultural treasures being run by the people before him, Mr. Doctoroff concluded with grim tidings: The cuts were real. Maybe they could do better next year-maybe.
“People were taken aback,” said one person who was present. “There was this powerful guy who really gets our deal. But then it was like, where was the other side of the coin? It was kind of a clinching moment; it completely sunk in that the administration was not going to be flexible.”
Kate Levin, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, acknowledged that the Bloomberg administration was caught between its respect for the cultural institutions and its need to close a gaping budget gap. “We’re acutely aware of how valuable these institutions are to the city,” Ms. Levin said. “Having said that, no sector of the city’s funding universe has been spared-not police, not fire, not culture.”
Ms. Levin added that she respected the decision by the institutions to fight for more money. “It’s their job to paint as scary a picture as possible …. You don’t get into nonprofit culture other than to serve your audience, and that’s obviously what they’re trying to do.”
And so it has fallen to the cultural institutions to make the case that Mr. Bloomberg’s cuts are short-sighted and potentially devastating. The leaders will argue that, unlike every other sector supported by city funding, the cultural institutions attract tourism, employ huge numbers of New Yorkers and generate a return in revenue for the city.
“We would like the Mayor to put his businessman’s hat on and think of the institutions as more of an investment than a handout,” said Ms. Hopkins, the head of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
What’s more, leaders of these groups say, the cuts will have a palpable effect on the lives of culture-loving New Yorkers. The Met, for instance, is already in such a budget crunch that it will be hiking its suggested donation for adults from $10 to $12. Now, with the museum set to have nearly $3 million cut from its annual $10 million in city funding for operating and maintenance costs, sources say, the trustees may ultimately be forced to consider layoffs of museum workers, which in turn could lead to the closing of rooms and other programs.
“We’ll have to potentially close galleries and reduce hours of operation,” Mr. McKinney said. “We might have to cut back on educational services, which serve 250,000 school kids.”
Mr. Bloomberg has argued that the institutions could make up their shortfalls by relying on increased philanthropy. But the heads of the institutions unanimously report a huge post–Sept. 11 decline in corporate and philanthropic largesse. And the city funding being cut is money typically spent on maintenance and upkeep. It’s hard to get private donors to help out with such less-than-glamorous expenses, because they want their money to fund new rooms or wings-in short, additions that can carry a plaque with their name on it. After all, you can’t attach a donor’s name to a mop head or a light bulb.
“Donors are definitely interested in cachet,” Ms. Hopkins said. “Maintenance and security falls through the cracks. These are not exactly high-end items.”