Readers of this year’s New York City budget will learn that three New York cultural institutions are in particular need of protection from terrorists: the American Museum of Natural History, Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The decision to allocate a total of $2 million in security funding to those three—and only those three—has caused a stir in the city’s well-heeled cultural community.
Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller shook hands on a budget deal on June 28, officials at major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art have been wondering why they were left off the list.
They’ve also been puzzling over how the spending emerged at the last minute from the bowels of an obscure budget process, in which one lobbyist appears to have convinced Mr. Miller to steer security money to her clients alone.
The decision came as a surprise to many of the members of the Cultural Institutions Group, the coalition of 34 prominent cultural nonprofits that operate out of city-owned facilities.
On July 1, the executive director of the group, Janet Schneider, sent out an e-mail to her members.
“I have received calls from many of you who are disappointed by the fact that pressing security needs at the institutions were not addressed in an across-the-board fashion,” she wrote. “I have not received a cogent explanation of why the Council chose to address this the way that they did. Although I am also disappointed, I take the position that an enhancement to any part of the [Cultural Institutions Group] budget is a positive development. There is an obvious inequity here, and I believe it will be rectified; the question is when.”
The city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, Kate Levin, also criticized the decision in an interview with The Observer this week.
“This was a member item, pure and simple. It’s a Council initiative,” she said. “Our preference would be to spread it around a bit more, and we hope to work with the Council to do that.”
A spokeswoman for the City Council, Sarah Mikutel, said the three groups had been given the money simply because they were the ones who asked.
“They were the ones who submitted requests for proposals for it,” she said in an e-mail.
But Lowery Sims, the Cultural Institutions Group’s chairwoman, said the group as a whole had also requested security subsidies. So leaders of the cultural group say they don’t understand why Mr. Miller—who according to officials in and out of government had the final call in this instance—chose those three groups out of the 34 who had together submitted a request for security money.
“There are other institutions that have similar challenges and need funding,” said Ms. Sims, who is the president of the Studio Museum of Harlem.
The Cultural Institutions Group’s members range from Manhattan landmarks like the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum to farther-flung institutions like the Bronx Zoo and Flushing Town Hall in Queens. Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, a variety of security costs have shot up, affecting virtually all of these groups.
“I was surprised right after 9/11 that one of my insurance providers cancelled my insurance because I was in the area of a potential terrorist attack,” said Ms. Sims, whose Studio Museum of Harlem isn’t an obvious terror target, but which occupies a site across the street from a towering state office building.
But it was the large institutions that faced the most dramatic cost increases. Along with hiring new security guards, installing cameras and training staff, they have seen sharp increases in the cost of insuring themselves and their traveling exhibitions in particular.
“Insurance costs are off the chart,” said the spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum, Harold Holzer. “Since 9/11, it’s the fastest-growing cost of doing business in the world of exhibitions.”
New York museum officials became particularly worried after the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, speculating that they would face some kind of retribution.
“After the invasion of Iraq and the looting of the Baghdad museum, at the request of a number of cultural institutions, our counterterrorism experts reviewed some of the security at cultural institutions and made recommendations,” said Paul Browne, the spokesman for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
Mr. Browne declined to detail the recommendations, and city officials said there was no public list of institutions at particularly high risk.
“Every museum has needs,” said the Metropolitan Museum’s Mr. Holzer. “The Met and its sister museums would love to have all their needs addressed.”
Security Pork As federal homeland-security spending has notoriously demonstrated, however, government spending on security can have more to do with politics than with actual needs. From Wyoming to Wyoming County, N.Y., rural areas have claimed their piece of the security budget on the grounds that if the big city is getting some, they want their share, too. And since any government’s needs always outstrip its budget, new sources of unrestricted funding are always welcome. Money is fungible, and a government grant for security may free up money to be spent elsewhere.
The $2 million city grant is a microcosm of the politics of security pork, played out on the local level. Indeed, some security experts dispute whether museums belong near the top of a priority list at all. Their typically spacious layout makes them less attractive for terrorists, who aim to cause massive casualties, said Chris Grnit, a vice president at the Kroll security consultancy.
“If you prioritize it, are museums on the upper end of that scale?” Mr. Grnit asked. “I don’t think so.”
One thing that’s clear about this allocation of $2 million: No formal evaluation of security risks determined which groups got a piece of this relatively small security pie.
The process began in February, when Dominic Recchia, a bluff lawyer from South Brooklyn, took over the City Council’s committee on cultural affairs.
“When I became chairman, I met with institutions across the city to hear what their concerns were, and the security concern was a major issue,” he said. In particular, Mr. Recchia said, he was concerned that the institutions had received no federal or local funding to offset their security costs.
So Mr. Recchia pushed to include $2 million in the City Council’s response to Mr. Bloomberg’s proposed budget. The money was to be “distributed to the C.I.G.’s according to” staffing levels. Cultural-group officials said the line was inserted at their request, and that they expected it to be divided among the groups most at risk.
“We had requested it as a group,” said Susan Delvalle, the director of external affairs at El Museo del Barrio. “Most of us have been requesting an increase since Sept. 11.”
The request seemed a long shot at the time. The back-and-forth between the Mayor and the Speaker typically focuses on existing programs that the Mayor recommends cutting and the Speaker insists on continuing to fund. This would be a whole new budget line.
But with tax receipts unexpectedly high and both officials running for Mayor, the fiscal-year 2006 budget would turn out to be unusually generous. And so, in the negotiations between Mr. Miller’s and Mr. Bloomberg’s staffs, the security spending was inserted into the budget for the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Officials inside and outside of city government, however, said that officials at the Department of Cultural Affairs were unhappy with the choice to distribute the money to only three institutions. And the details of how those institutions received the money aren’t entirely clear.
Good Connections The American Museum of Natural History, among the oldest of the city’s cultural institutions and one if its busiest (though the Met has substantially more visitors), would probably have been a natural for a part of the grant. It also had a particularly well-connected advocate, Robert Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman, a Long Island public-relations man, is the chairman of Mr. Miller’s campaign-finance committee, his top political fund-raiser. Mr. Zimmerman is also the Speaker’s appointee to the board of the Museum of Natural History, and in that position had become convinced of the museum’s needs.
“The museum has a very compelling case to make, and they received their support strictly on the merits,” Mr. Zimmerman said.
The decision to spend $300,000 portions of the grant on the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center is more mysterious. Like the other groups, both have seen their security costs rise.
“Since 9/11, Lincoln Center has strengthened its overall security measures, and the funds you cited will be applied to the consequent additional manpower and equipment,” a spokeswoman for Lincoln Center, Betsy Vorce, said in an e-mail.
But the two institutions don’t seem to be likelier terror targets than the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Carnegie Hall. They share one thing with the Museum of Natural History, however: a lobbyist, Liz Berger.
A partner in the law firm of lobbyist Claudia Wagner, Ms. Berger has represented the three institutions for more than a decade, said a spokeswoman, Maureen Connelly. And since the Sept. 11 attacks, the groups have put security at the top of their lobbying agenda, submitting specific requests for security funding and testifying to their needs before the City Council.
“You have to identify your priorities,” she said.
In the scramble to finalize the budget, Ms. Berger and Ms. Wagner were familiar faces in the lobby of City Hall and outside the Speaker’s office. And their diligence paid off for their clients, though the details of why their specific requests were substituted for the more general request of the Cultural Institutions Group remains unclear.
But the surprise decision to spend all the security money on three institutions has left the rest of the cultural institutions in an uncomfortable spot. Public protest is virtually unheard of among the city’s cultural institutions, which are an uncharacteristically timid player in city politics. While other nonprofit groups that receive city funding will stage a die-in on the steps of City Hall at any hint of a cut in their budgets, the cultural groups favor behind-the-scenes lobbying by their powerful trustees.
They have also strained to maintain good relations with both Mr. Miller—the son of socially prominent East Side family—and Mr. Bloomberg, one of the city’s leading philanthropists. This hasn’t always been easy. Last year, as The Observer reported at the time, a powerful aide to Mr. Bloomberg, Patty Harris, placed a round of angry calls to the leaders of cultural groups who had given political contributions to Mr. Miller, effectively shutting down that line of fund-raising for the Speaker. (In Ms. Schneider’s e-mail, she pointedly noted: “We are also grateful that the Mayor has decided to renew his personal philanthropy.”)
The groups also remain heavily dependent on more than $100 million in public subsidies via the Department of Cultural Affairs, some of which Mr. Bloomberg proposed cutting this year, and which was restored to the budget at the behest of Mr. Miller.
So despite the anger behind the scenes—attested to by several officials speaking with The Observer—cultural-institution officials preferred to look on the bright side when speaking about the security funding. “What we’re happy about is that this puts the issue front and center and on the radar screen of the Council and the administration,” Ms. Sims, the group’s chairwoman, said.
Still, the lobbying to change the allocation of that $2 million continues. And despite the fact that the names of those three groups appear in the final budget documents, Mr. Recchia said that the last word may not have been spoken on how the money will be spent.
“All these people are under the impression that Lincoln Center, B.A.M. and the Natural History Museum are getting all the money,” he said. “It’s not a done deal yet.”
Follow Ben Smith via RSS.