The Cultural Plan



New York City’s long history of supporting arts and culture is unparalleled in the United States. In 1869, the American Museum of Natural History was established through a unique partnership between City government and private residents.

By the end of the 19th century, this same model would give rise to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Bronx Zoo. The deal was clear from the beginning. The City would provide land and capital dollars to build facilities. The city would also pay for heat, light, and some operating expenses—mostly for maintenance and security—but a private nonprofit would run the cultural organization. Eventually, this group of organizations would come to be known as the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG). For the next century, this template would define City government’s funding for arts and culture before more expansive funding models were adopted in the late 20th century.

In the following century, the number of cultural organizations receiving City funding grew in fits and starts. There were six by 1899, four more by 1936. While many of the early CIG members were built as public Institutions, others were reclamation projects. For example, in 1943 Mayor Fiorello La Guardia saved a Midtown meeting hall from the wrecking ball and transformed it into New York City Center. He saw City Center as a municipal theater offering “hundreds of thousands of people…the opportunity of hearing the best [in music and drama] at prices they could afford.” The City stepped in to save another Midtown site from yet another wrecking ball in 1960—Carnegie Hall. PS1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City was a derelict school reclaimed by an arts group and made into a major city resource when it became a CIG member in 1976. At the same time, the seeds were planted for a broader vision for City support for culture when a modest budget of $60,000 was set aside for cultural programming—about $500,000 in today’s dollars.

Original Act of Incorporation Charter officially creating the American Museum of Natural History signed in 1869

Original Act of Incorporation Charter officially creating the American Museum of Natural History signed in 1869

The 1960s and 1970s saw more institutions added to the CIG as the City responded to changing demographics and sought to establish pillars of arts and culture in areas beyond lower Manhattan, including the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, The Studio Museum in Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, among others. The success of these institutions has had profound impacts on the communities they serve locally and has been instrumental in contributing to art and cultural histories internationally.

By the time the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) was formally established as its own agency in 1975, there were 15 members of the CIG. Seven more were added in quick succession in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Henry Geldzahler, Commissioner of the new agency under Mayor Ed Koch. Today, the CIG is comprised of 33 institutions citywide, and City funding for cultural programs flows to more than 900 nonprofits every year. Throughout this time, the private cultural sector also began to thrive in parallel to City-supported culture. In 1929, the Museum of Modern Art was founded with a mission dedicated to the presentation of visual arts of the time. Uptown, the Harlem Renaissance flourished. Theaters were established across the city, and Broadway’s influence grew. The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1930, presenting exhibitions by living American artists not accepted in more traditional academies. In 1958, Alvin Ailey and a group of young Black modern dancers went from performing at the 92nd Street Y to founding the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In 1959, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened its current location, having outgrown its original 1939 facility.

New York has incubated many other innovations in cultural support mechanisms. In 1976, Materials for the Arts (MFTA) was born at the onset of the recycling movement. The late 1970s and 1980s saw a new focus on individual artists. Amidst financial uncertainties in New York City, Cultural Affairs Commissioner Henry Geldzahler administered the federally funded Comprehensive Employment and Training Act Artists Project (CETA) in 1977, the largest government-funded artist employment project since the WPA of the 1930s, hiring more than 600 artists to provide cultural services throughout the city, and 300 CETA employees in maintenance, security, and other positions at cultural organizations. In 1982, Mayor Ed Koch enacted the Percent for Art Law, which requires that one percent of the budget for eligible City-funded construction be dedicated to creating public artworks. In 2017, the Percent for Art Law was updated and expanded for the first time to allow an increase in the number of commissions and available artist fees annually. Over 330 artists have completed Percent for Art commissions citywide with another 90 projects currently underway.

In the 1980s, DCLA expanded its reach to target support to arts education and programming for community-based organizations through programs like The Arts Exposure Program and Free-for-All, Arts Development Fund, and Program Development Fund. All of these programs led the way to the current Cultural Development Fund, established in 2003, that now awards grants to over 800 nonprofit cultural organizations annually through a peer-review panel process.

Today, New York City invests more in arts and culture than any other city in the country. DCLA supports nearly 1,000 nonprofit cultural organizations every year. The agency also vigorously funds capital projects across the city at a wide range of cultural organizations. DCLA provided over $330 million for arts and culture in fiscal year 2017, between expense and capital—its largest budget in its history. That number climbed to over $360 million in the adopted budget for fiscal year 2018. And DCLA is not alone. A wide variety of City agencies—from the Department of Education to the Department of Sanitation—actively supports arts and culture.



Since its founding as an independent agency more than four decades ago, DCLA has been committed to supporting and strengthening New York City’s vibrant cultural life. Every year, DCLA provides funding to more than 900 organizations across New York City to provide publicly accessible cultural programming. These funding operations make up the bulk of the agency’s services; just about 4% of its fiscal year 2017 budget went to agency operations. The rest was distributed directly to the city’s nonprofit cultural field. 

DCLA is the largest local cultural funding agency in the Unites States, with a fiscal year 2017 budget of $177 million that included funding for a variety of initiatives designed to increase access to and engagement with the arts throughout the city. The agency’s capital budget includes more than $800 million over four years. No other city in the U.S. makes this scale of investment in cultural infrastructure. In recent years, the City has increased the focus of capital funding on projects in underserved communities across the city. 

The agency’s purview goes beyond the common perception of visual and performing arts to include science and the humanities—literature organizations and historical and presentation societies, zoos, botanical gardens, and organizations that provide cultural services, particularly in the education arena. It also includes groups that serve the needs of other cultural organizations, such as local arts councils and technical service organizations.

DCLA’s Percent for Art program makes art accessible and visible throughout the city by integrating art in site-specific projects to enhance civic architecture and activate public spaces. Since 1982, New York City’s Percent for Art law has required that one percent of the budget for eligible City-funded construction projects be spent on public artwork. Percent for Art is discussed in more detail in the Arts and Culture in Public Space chapter. 

New York City Department of Cultural Affairs 2017 Budget


As described in the previous chapter, the model of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) has been central to New York City cultural funding since the late 19th century. Starting with the establishment of the American Museum of Natural History and Metropolitan Museum of Art, private nonprofit institutions on City-owned property received subsidies to maintain their collections and provide publicly accessible cultural programming. 

Today, the CIG is comprised of 33 institutions operating on City-owned property across the five boroughs. In fiscal year 2017, DCLA allocated $72 million to these institutions for general operating support and $39 million in energy subsidies.


DCLA’s other major stream of cultural expense funding is Cultural Development Fund (CDF), which supports more than 900 nonprofit organizations that provide cultural programming throughout the city. 

The agency encourages participation in the CDF process by the widest possible representation of the City’s diverse cultural constituency. CDF support focuses on local audiences—often those in New York’s most underserved neighborhoods—and over half of the fund’s grantees provide arts education to our city’s students. They include groups of all disciplines—dance, music, design, performing, visual arts, and more—and represent New York’s extraordinary cultural breadth. Prior to the creation of the CDF, City support to groups outside of the CIG was allocated through discretionary spending by the members of the City Council. In 2003, the creation of CDF introduced the peer panel review to the selection of applicants. Today, this funding stream distributes more funding to more groups than ever before. 

Through a partnership with local arts councils in each borough, CDF funding is “re-granted” to smaller groups and individual artists throughout the city. These re-grant funds received their first substantial increase in years thanks to a boost in DCLA’s fiscal year 2017 budget from the Mayor’s Office. This budget increase also provided a first-ever allocation of $1 million for the energy expenses of cultural organizations located on City-owned property under DCLA’s jurisdiction which are not members of the CIG (see the Health of the Cultural Sector case study on page 142 for more information about these institutions). 


DCLA’s Capital Projects Unit supports design and construction projects and major equipment purchases at the 33 City-owned Cultural Institutions Group members and nearly 200 other cultural facilities throughout the five boroughs. These projects aim to assist the nonprofit cultural community in providing increased public service, provide greater access and accessibility for people with disabilities, enhance exhibition or performing space, better maintain and preserve historic buildings, and increase protection of botanical, zoological, and fine art collections. DCLA currently has $807.3 million allocated for 398 active projects at 202 organizations over the next four years (fiscal year 2017-2020). This includes $152 million that was added at the adoption of the fiscal year 2017 budget. This robust funding, which is allocated by the Mayor’s Office, City Council, and borough presidents’ offices, supports projects that are critical to growing and sustaining cultural groups in all five boroughs.


DCLA also manages a number of programs that serve the cultural community, from New York’s premiere creative reuse center in Queens to Percent for Art, which commissions permanent public artworks for City-funded construction projects in all five boroughs. 


Since 1978, Materials for the Arts (MFTA) has been a leader in creative reuse practices. It redirects material from New York City’s waste stream and provides it free of charge to arts organizations, public schools, and City agencies. Its dual mission is to reduce waste and to increase access to affordable arts programming across New York City.

Materials for the Arts was founded in 1978 by an employee of the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, who put out a call on a local radio station for a refrigerator much needed by the Central Park Zoo to store medicine for their animals. Offers flooded in, and MFTA was born. It began to receive funding from the City’s Department of Sanitation in the late 1980s and became a partner of the Department of Education in 1997, expanding its services to city schools.

Today, MFTA collects over 1 million pounds of reusable materials annually from businesses and individuals. These materials go to MFTA’s 35,000 square foot warehouse in Long Island City, Queens, where over 4,000 member organizations can pick up supplies on “shopping days.”


Enacted by Mayor Ed Koch in 1982, the Percent for Art program commissions permanent works of public art at eligible City-funded construction projects across the city. Schools, parks, plazas, courthouses, libraries, and other civic spaces throughout the city have been enhanced by more than 330 commissions since its inception. This program is explored in greater depth in the Arts and Culture in Public Space chapter of this report.


Recognizing the role cultural organizations and the arts play in community development, DCLA’s Capacity Building Unit has developed the Building Community Capacity (BCC) initiative to ensure that culture is included as part of interagency efforts around neighborhood planning, affordable housing, and economic development.

BCC acknowledges that a strong ecosystem of individuals, organizations, and agencies are essential to identify and address community level issues. The program provides multi-year support in select neighborhoods enabling participants to create a shared vision and the strategic framework to support it. Ultimately, community members are better served through priority efforts such as asset mapping, website development, artist and space directories, resource sharing, monthly meet-ups, and leadership skills building.


The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs launched a major initiative in January 2015 to study, promote, and cultivate equitable representation among the leadership, staffs, and audiences of cultural organizations in New York City. The launch of the initiative established DCLA’s long-term commitment to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and is a priority for the agency in all of its work.

The first major milestone of the cultural DEI initiative was a survey of the workforce of groups funded by DCLA. The results, released in 2016, provide a critical benchmark and serve as a catalyst to diversify the staff and leadership of the cultural field. Other outcomes included the establishment of an internal DCLA Diversity Committee, discipline-specific town hall gatherings, the creation of the CUNY Cultural Corps, and the activation of more than $4 million to spur efforts to cultivate more inclusive workplaces. This includes $2 million from the City’s Theater Subdistrict Council for increased opportunities in the theater workforce for underrepresented populations.


New York City’s investment in arts and culture stretches well beyond DCLA.

In 2014-2015, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) spent $368 million on arts education in public schools. Arts programs are offered throughout City government agencies including the Department of Parks and Recreation, Department of Sanitation, Department of Transportation, New York City’s three public library systems, Department for the Aging, Department of Correction, and many more. NYC & Company, the official marketing and tourism arm of New York City, promotes New York City’s cultural sector around the world, leading to record-setting years on Broadway and new highs in visitorship to organizations across the city.

Together in 2017, the New York City Council and the de Blasio Administration signed into law the first increase in the Percent for Art program in three decades, strengthening DCLA’s ability to commission public art in new City facilities. The City Council has expressed its continued support for arts and culture through the growth of Council initiatives focused on equity such as the Cultural Afterschool Adventures Program (CASA), the Coalition of Theatres of Color, Immigrant Initiative, and anti-gun violence initiative, Art, A Catalyst for Change, among others.



In May 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation requiring New York City to produce its first-ever comprehensive cultural plan: CreateNYC. The legislation was sponsored by Council Members Stephen Levin and Jimmy Van Bramer, Majority Leader and Chair of the New York City Council’s Cultural Affairs Committee.

CreateNYC was envisioned as a plan to map support for arts and culture throughout the five boroughs, to coordinate existing and future programming, to meet established needs and fill gaps in services, and to ensure growth, excellence, and equity now and long into the future.
This cultural plan examines contemporary issues crucial for maintaining New York City’s cultural vibrancy, including affordable artist workspace, access to arts and science education, and the role of culture in activating public space. CreateNYC tackles the challenging question: How can we work toward a sustainable, inclusive, and equitable cultural sector that serves all New Yorkers? This is no small task—as such, CreateNYC is meant to be a living document that can evolve to address a constantly changing city. It is meant to be both practical and aspirational with strategies apply over the short, medium, and long term.

The legislation called for the cultural plan to address specific issues including the availability and distribution of cultural activities in the five boroughs, the relationship between cultural activities and social and economic health, affordable housing and workspace needs of artists, and increasing arts education and activities in public schools. The legislation also established a Citizens’ Advisory Committee to advise on the development and implementation of the plan. This Committee is described in more detail on page 162.

“I believe it is imperative that we initiate institutional policies that will firmly set our City’s foundation as the leading cultural capital of the world.”

Jimmy Van Bramer
New York City Council Majority Leader and
Cultural Affairs Committee Chair


Hester Street (HST) was selected through an open call to develop the cultural plan. For 15 years, HST has worked as an advisor to communities throughout New York City to develop transformative plans and projects through inclusive, participatory processes. HST’s team of planners, architects, and community organizers works with residents, community-based organizations, small businesses, City agencies, and elected officials to develop innovative community engagement tools that maximize resident input. That input is paired with research, data, and analysis, ensuring meaningful civic engagement, optimal community benefit, and implementable results.

For CreateNYC, to complement DCLA staff, HST teamed up with local experts, including BJH Advisors, LLC (BJH), HOUSEOFCAKES Design, James Lima Planning + Development (JLP+D), Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts NY (NOCD-NY), and Pratt Institute’s Spatial Analysis and Visualization Initiative (SAVI).


At a public library in Crown Heights, Public Artist in Residence Bryan Doerries stages the 2,500-year-old Sophocles play “Ajax” for veterans and civilians, using the timeless story as a vehicle to discuss trauma, isolation, and, ultimately, healing.

On a street in the East Village, Iftar in the City brings together hundreds of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Sikh, and non-believing New Yorkers at a single long outdoor table, in an uplifting celebration of the traditional Muslim fast-breaking dinners of Ramadan.

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, choreographer Heidi Latsky engages a cast of diverse bodies in a living gallery of inclusion, in public performances from Chinatown to Times Square.

At a public plaza in the heart of Corona, a community festival enlivens the street with music from Mexico, Bangladesh, and Puerto Rico, while a crowd of all ages and backgrounds mingles and enjoys arts and crafts, free exercise classes, and traditional food.

In East New York, ARTs East New York hosts Summer Saturdaze & Nights, highlighting local artists, artisans, and creative entrepreneurs in a welcoming event series.

Since the CreateNYC process began in 2016, our country has seen a marked shift in political climate. It has become even more critical to protect, sustain, and expand New York City’s cultural resources to reach residents across all boroughs and all backgrounds.

On a national level, New York City residents face concerns over federal policies that threaten the rights, safety, and wellbeing of the three million foreign-born residents and their families who call New York City home. Mass incarceration of people of color, systemic racism, residential segregation, and growing inequality impact every social, economic, and political issue of our time. Health disparities fall along lines of race and class—in fact, your zip code is a stronger predictor of your life expectancy than your genetic code. As the impact of climate change is felt around the globe and here in New York City, the need for science-based solutions to long-term sustainability becomes all the more urgent. In addition, major issues of concern are rising across the cultural community: threats to free press, increases in hate crimes and cultural conflicts, the doubling down on law and order, and the pervasive reality of discrimination stemming from unconscious bias. Each of these warrants concern and a renewed recognition of the value of the arts to the nation, to our city, and to individuals’ lives.

Given their extraordinary value to the economy and social fabric, the national investment in arts and culture makes both social and economic sense. Last year alone, the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and Humanities (NEH) and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) granted a combined $29.5 million to New York City. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided another $28.4 million for public media programming in the five boroughs. These are dollars that New York City cultural groups depend on.

At the local level, we find ourselves facing a complex set of interconnected challenges. The affordability crisis in New York City is ever present in rapidly changing neighborhoods across the five boroughs, as more and more New Yorkers struggle under the weight of hefty rent burdens. This has generated a growing displacement crisis. As rents increase, long-time residents and small businesses struggle to remain in their neighborhoods.
Exacerbating this is growing income inequality. Wages for low- and middle-income New Yorkers have stagnated while incomes at the top continue to rise. The fight to lift up working families through better wages and affordable housing is imperative. Artists, cultural workers, and cultural organizations face these same struggles. Through CreateNYC, the City seeks to address these issues as well as many others particular to the cultural sector.

CreateNYC utilizes the same principles that underpin New York City’s broader roadmap—One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City: Equity, Inclusion, Access, Interconnection, Growth, and Excellence. These terms are discussed in more detail in “Issues”.

These principles were echoed in the voices and aspirations of everyday New Yorkers who participated in the community-driven CreateNYC process:

A mother hopes that every child will have access to quality art instruction and venture outside the confines of their classroom to participate in and be exposed to museums, theater, and other cultural events, reminding us that culture is not a luxury.

A Queens resident calls for art in public space that represents the cultural diversity of the city, and challenges New Yorkers unaware of this cultural diversity to engage with those from different backgrounds.

An artist asks for unrestricted grants and wages that allow her to make a living while sustaining her arts practice.

CreateNYC is an opportunity to build on the progress of the past using the power of culture to bring people together and to think critically about the most pressing issues facing our society today.

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