Theater for the New City’s ‘Art Startup’ ponders community partnership

TNC’s Johnson Theater was filled to capacity for the Dec. 27 debut of its “Art Startup” initiative. Illustration by Ilana Hessing

TNC’s Johnson Theater was filled to capacity for the Dec. 27 debut of its “Art Startup” initiative. Illustration by Ilana Hessing

BY TRAV S.D. | The Johnson Theater, the largest of Theater for the New City’s four theater spaces, was at capacity on the night of Tues., Dec. 27, for the first in a series of free neighborhood gatherings called “Art Startup.”

The initiative is being presented by Theater for the New City (TNC) as a response to “CreateNYC” — the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs’ recently launched “cultural plan for all New Yorkers,” which means to establish a “roadmap for the future of NYC arts and culture” by July 2017.

For “Art Startup,” TNC made available a diverse panel of over a dozen arts professionals affiliated with the company, including actors, playwrights, choreographers, visual artists, teaching artists, and directors. Crystal Field, co-founder and artistic director of TNC, launched the meeting by announcing its purpose: to hear from members of the community, particularly from TNC’s “non-artist” neighbors on the Lower East Side, about the sort of art they would like to see in the future, and the particular barriers there might be to creating it. She expressed a particular fear that New York’s status as a sanctuary city might put arts funding at risk, given the results of the recent presidential election.

Theater for the New City teaching artist Brandon Mellette. Photo by Trav S.D.

Theater for the New City teaching artist Brandon Mellette. Photo by Trav S.D.

The panelists were then introduced, and the floor was opened up for questions and comments from the audience. While the announced mission of the forum was for “the community to speak to artists,” based on those who spoke, the turnout seemed to consist mostly of fellow artists and arts administrators, although there were a few TNC fans and audience members who spoke about how important their productions have been to them, and some parents whose children had benefitted from arts education.

Concerns expressed by attendees were wide-ranging.

Representatives of a “not strictly legal” underground concert space in Greenpoint/Williamsburg expressed concerns about the physical welfare of artists in the wake of the recent Oakland fire, which took place in a similar venue.

A man affiliated with the Chinatown-based Asian American Arts Centre mentioned their involvement in the Cultural Equity Group, an effort to bring greater fairness to the distribution of cultural resources in New York City. High among his concerns he said was the fact that, “We can’t pass our work on to the next generation, because we can’t afford to pay people [to be junior staffers].”

Yazmin Colon of Educated Little Monsters in Bushwick spoke of gentrification, saying, “It’s inevitable, but the character that comes with it is not.” She said there was a tendency for newer residents to “disrespect the art that was already there and displace it,” and there is a need “to create new systems” to address that.

A man who identified himself as a TV professional who’d been involved with the Kitchen, The Wooster Group, and the Collective for Living Cinema, spoke of the availability of space in outer boroughs and at houses of worship, and suggested the challenges of iconoclastic location may be offset by vigorous promotion.

Another speaker mentioned that the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has announced a renovation plan for Tompkins Square Park, and that he is working on a proposal for a children’s outdoor theater for the playground on the park’s southeast corner.

L to R: Actress and TNC board member Vinie Burrows, choreographer Robert Gonzales Jr., and visual artist/curator Carolyn Ratcliffe. Photo by Trav S.D.

L to R: Actress and TNC board member Vinie Burrows, choreographer Robert Gonzales Jr., and visual artist/curator Carolyn Ratcliffe. Photo by Trav S.D.

Several of those who spoke expressed their fervent wishes for the return of CHARAS/El Bohio, the art space that was long located in the former P.S. 64, but was displaced in December 2001 after then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sold the premises to a private developer. Providentially, Chino Garcia, one of the founders of CHARAS, was on hand to offer an update, saying that developer Gregg Singer (who bought the building) has been unable to raise funds to convert the building, and that there is a movement back on to revive CHARAS.

“We’re not just an artistic community but also a political community,” said panelist Vinie Burrows. “The price of rent is a political issue,” she stressed, asking, “What are the ways we can come together, and what leaders do we need to put pressure on to make these changes?”

Panelist Carolyn Ratcliffe mentioned her involvement with the Arts & Cultural Affairs Subcommittee of Community Board 3 and encouraged attendance at their next meeting, which will be at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave., btw. E. Ninth & E. 10th Sts.) on Jan. 9 at 6:30 p.m.

Field concluded the meeting by remarking, “This is meeting number one. It is ‘A,’ not ‘Z.’ It didn’t have to be perfect. But I think this was a big success.”

Then the two-hour forum adjourned for a free post-session repast proved by local businesses Iggy’s Pizzeria, McSorley’s Old Ale House, Moishe’s Bake Shop, Gena’s Grill, Haveli Banjara Indian Restaurant, La Palapa, China Star, Veselka, Paquito’s, Rai Rai Ken and Pinks.

The date of the next “Art Startup” will be posted on TNC’s website: theaterforthenewcity.net

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