Belt-tightening squeezes N.Y. cultural institutions

May 16, 1993|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- For a look at the future of many New York cultural landmarks, take a ride on this city's subway. Once the city's pride and joy, it is now a shattered masterpiece, with a few renovated stations that only highlight the rest of the system's sad disrepair.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park and the rest of New York's cultural crown jewels are hardly in such a state, but their luster is slowly fading, thanks to a series of city and corporate budget cutbacks that continue to eat into the city's cultural foundation.

Consider: A third of the Met -- one of America's premier museums and an international tourist draw -- is closed three days a week; entrance to other museums can easily run an enthusiasm-sagging $10; the city's great parks are becoming torn and frayed around the edges; the Frick Art Reference Library faces possible closure; and the 189-year-old New York Historical Society is broke and has closed its galleries and library to the public.

"Arts here are badly wounded. The past three years have been brutal to the arts community," says Norma Munn, chairwoman of New York City Arts Coalition.

Effects of cutbacks

The cuts started three years ago, when operating money for the city's top 31 institutions was slashed from $90 million to $72 million. Now, although the recession is over, the effects of three years of cutbacks are beginning to show.

To counter these cuts, officials are studying culture's economic impact on the city's $13 billion tourist industry in hopes of mounting better arguments for more money. One finding: Last year's exhibition of the French Impressionist painter Georges Seurat at the Met brought the city $313 million in business, says Luis R. Cancel, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

"People sometimes argue that it's a trade-off between social programs and the arts. We're showing that the arts bring in the very tax dollars that support the schools," Mr. Cancel says.

To a degree, the argument is working: The city has restored some of the cuts in this year's budget and has proposed helping the Historical Society out of its financial bind.

City officials also point out that much rebuilding was done in the 1980s. Parks were refurbished, and museums, rich from private donations, added wings and renovated old sections. The result is that New York still has a lot to offer a visitor, from its superb art collections to its gems of architectural landscaping.

And yet the city's -- and, depending on one's views, the country's -- inability to sustain a consistent level of cultural support for its most-visited city has left growing blights.

Big hits on small institutions

Smaller organizations have been particularly hard hit, leading the Manhattan's Children's Museum, for example, to raise admission from $3 to $5 and the American Ballet Theater to curtail the number of performances this season by one third.

Other organizations, such as the Guggenheim, have responded by charging such high prices that they are off-limits to the poor and take any spontaneity out of a museum trip. With admissions for special exhibitions now $10, a trip to the Guggenheim has to be carefully weighed, and one tends not to take chances on shows that might not please -- hardly the best conditions for expanding one's horizons.

One apparent contradiction is the ability of museums to build, renovate and refurbish while staying closed.

The Met, for example, boasts a newly renovated series of rooms devoted to 19th-century art that now bear the patron's name but which are closed for part of the week due to lack of operating expenses.

The reason for this has to do with a heavy reliance on private grants, which are often restricted to acquisitions or new construction. This has left museums able to open fancy new galleries but unable to pay for the guards and electricity needed to keep them open.

"Clearly it does not make any business sense for the city's biggest tourist attraction to have its galleries closed," Mr. Cancel says of the Met. "But the operating money is hard to replace."

Deterioration of parks

Private money also has been only a partial salve to the city's parks, which have seen budget cuts of 20 percent over the past three years.

Community groups have helped repair some bridges in the city's main showpiece, Central Park, but the park department says only half its 1,500 parks are in acceptable condition. One-third of the drinking fountains are out of order, and the amount of defective playground equipment has doubled in three years.

The parks' tattered condition includes masterpieces of landscape architecture, such as Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

On the edge of Prospect Park in the Brooklyn Museum, the situation is even worse. Reduced opening hours close half the museum even on the weekend, and display cases themselves are so chintzy as to remind one of Eastern Europe galleries.

To be fair, the Brooklyn Museum is, at $4, cheap and still able to attract the sort of New Yorker priced out of Manhattan's wallet-gouging institutions. But founded to rival the Met across the East River, the museum is a melancholic statement of a city's capitulation to urban flight, crime and poverty.

Beyond landing another blow to the city's oft-damaged civic pride, the cuts may be undermining New York's economic viability.

Just as decades of "deferred maintenance" deteriorated the subway to the point that many residents felt they had to leave New York for suburbs in New Jersey, Connecticut and upstate New York, so too could the erosion of the city's cultural heritage force more to flee and deter tourists from visiting.

"We have to make it more understood that a lot of what attracts people to the city is the culture," Mr. Cancel says. "It's not a luxury, but a part of the city's economy."

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