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Calls Grow for WTC Cultural Rethink

Last June, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) announced a "worldwide initiative" to solicit proposals from arts groups wishing to partake in the upcoming redevelopment of Ground Zero. Called an "Invitation to Cultural Institutions for the World Trade Center Site" (or ICI for short), the nine-page information request produced over 100 respondents. By last February, a shortlist of 15 organizations had been created, including Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company, New York City Opera, and the Joyce Theater Foundation.

Now, City Councilman Alan Jay Gerson, who represents the district that includes the World Trade Center site, has issued a report heavily criticizing the LMDC's selection process and demanding a more accountable, open, and democratic way of choosing which groups will eventually reside on the site. The report demands that the LMDC, together with city and state officials, imagine a reconstituted World Trade Center cultural component as part of a larger vision for a thriving arts community at the southern tip of Manhattan.

"Campuses & Corridors: A Strategy for a Multi-Campus Cultural District in Lower Manhattan" was made public in April and makes it clear that there is more than merely the cultural composition of the rebuilt World Trade Center at stake. To make his point, Gerson stood on the steps of City Hall last week with representatives of dozens of arts groups and called on the LMDC to rethink what the cultural landscape of all of downtown ought to look like.

"Everyone knows that the arts help drive this city's economic engine," reads one part of the report. "And yet, even though New York City and State are at the top of the list in per capita arts spending, we still lack infrastructure. We lack land use codification to buffer the arts from short-term market forces. We expect employees of the sector to work for little or nothing. Funding for operations is almost nonexistent. Organizations spend years creating capital campaigns, fixing buildings they don't own. Will downtown be yet one more example where we use the arts to rebuild the area, only to drive the arts out by the high cost of the revitalization they've helped to create?"

And while the report does "applaud the short list of arts institution candidates," it notes that "residents, arts sector leaders, artists, and local elected officials have had little or no direct say in any of these decisions so far." Arts leaders "should be at least equally represented in groups making decisions about arts policy."

Interestingly, it would seem that, on the one hand, the LMDC is heeding the call -- the final list of organizations for the World Trade Center site was to have been announced in April and no such announcement has been made to date. Yet in a June 3 New York Times interview, LMDC President Kevin M. Rampe rejected the councilman's call for transparency. "The right mix of cultural institutions on the site is not something that should be decided by public referendum," he stated. "At the end of the day, we're going to work to create a great cultural center in Lower Manhattan."

Still, Rampe might think twice before dismissing the report's conclusions. Gerson, a noted arts advocate, and his arts and culture liaison, Paul Nagle, worked closely with local nonprofits for two years to create the study, which outlines a bold strategy for downtown cultural redevelopment that includes a huge list of recommendations for building and economic-stabilization projects for a vast array of groups, including theatre organizations. "We have a vision of Lower Manhattan as an arts mecca," reads the executive summary, "with clusters of new and existing cultural groups connected by streets identified as arts corridors and signified with public art."

Some of the groups and suggested projects include the 3-Legged Dog Art and Technology Center ($1.5 million to complete construction on a state-of-the-art theatre, installation/performance space, offices, and digital editing and programming facilities), Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center ($4 million for renovations), Dance Space Center ($1.55 million toward the build-out of a new home), Dixon Place/Open Channels NY ($1.7 million to complete the build-out of a multidisciplinary community arts center), International WOW ($1.5 million for an International Theater Center), Lower East Side Performing Arts Center/Federation of East Village Artists ($250,000 toward the build-out of new theatre space for displaced Lower East Side theatre groups), National Dance Institute ($17.5 million to build a permanent home for the organization), and Stella Adler Studios ($16.2 million for rehearsal studios and a performance-space building).

And then there are proposed fiscal-stabilization projects, such as those for Chashama ($250,000 for performing arts residencies in spaces donated by real estate developers), Collective Unconscious ($50,000 toward stabilization in new space); DowntownNYC ($1.2 million for the mobile-ticketing ArtsVan, $10,000 for a cultural kiosk, and $166,000 for an arts registry website for Lower Manhattan), Jean Cocteau Repertory ($500,000 as a Sept. 11 stabilization campaign match), and Manhattan Children's Theatre ($52,800 for capacity expansion).

Whether any or all of these projects come to fruition remains to be seen. A call by Back Stage to Rampe's office was not returned, and it remained unclear at press time whether the final list of cultural groups selected for the World Trade Center site would be issued in coming weeks. Also at press time, neither Gerson nor Nagle could provide Back Stage with a list of those groups joining the legislator on the City Hall steps, due to a pending budget caucus. "But suffice it to say," Nagle said, "the downtown nonprofits are with us in this call for greater openness."

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