Wednesday, November 30, 2011

LOCAL: Fractured Atlas Event with Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer

Fractured Atlas held a meet and greet last Wednesday evening at Topaz Arts featuring NY City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, Chair of the Council  on Culture. (Official Press Release here).

Before I get into the notes of what Van Bremer said to the group, and the issues which were discussed, I want to spare a moment to say that if you're not already hip to what Fractured Atlas does, hurry the fuck up. They do more for independent arts in the United States than any major funding body, in my opinion, and the times that they have personally saved my skin are numerous. I literally can't imagine practicing art in New York without them. I'd probably just sell software for a living.

They're also really nice and approachable people, and it was great to meet them in person.


So, Van Bramer worked at the Public Library before getting a seat on the local community board (Queens CB2) and then winning a seat in the City Council. He's engaged now to be married, thanks to the legalization of same sex marriage (he fiddled with his wedding ring the entire time -- it was adorable).

Because I was livetweeting, my note-taking was a little broken up, but here are the important points that Van Bramer hit while he was talking:
  • Van Bramer, because of his position on the Committee of Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations, sees himself as a "defender of the arts."
  • If you want to see what they do, here's a link to all of their meetings, along with agendas and minutes. Van Bramer acknowledges that city websites are not as transparent as they could be, and sometimes it's difficult figuring out when committee hearings and information are. He suggests signing up to Councilperson mailing lists, like his own.
  • He acknowledge that the economic times are such that it's "astounding" that we got "no cuts in the 2011 budget." A moment later he qualified that as "almost no cuts in the 2011 budget." Still, he acknowledged how unenviable it is that the best we can do right now is stop further cuts and bleeding.
  • On a question around Speaker Quinn cutting the arts out of her discretionary funds, he declined to comment on her decision-making. Spoke about her with respect, and said that each councilperson is responsible for their own discretionary funds. (I guess that's why they're "discretionary")
  • On the key question of the night, how do we arts advocates cause change, he says: "Politicians (for the most part) are human beings." Show up at meetings. If you keep coming and cropping up, we will remember you. You have to be present.
  • On getting money, he says, The money is at the city level, far more than the state or federal level. "But you have to ask for it." If you need $5,000, or $10,000, or finding a way to get a piece of legislation changed. If you don't ask, you can't get it.
  • On how arts advocates cause change: artists need to force questions on cultural policy during debates. There's no better time to put pressure on a politician then when they're running for office.
  • Also on that subject: community boards are critical, and people can actually get their voices heard on a number of important subjects. Councilmen have a certain amount of seats on community boards they can appoint, and they like to appoint people who are passionate about issues that they're passionate about (he appointed someone from Transportation for America to Queens CB2, because he's passionate about bike lanes).
  • One of the artists in the audience (a visual artist) asked about live/work spaces. It's hard enough to find affordable living spaces, but even when the city requires affordable housing, they don't focus on live/work spaces. Van Bramer acknowledged the need for more. He also mentioned that he and the director of MoMA have been talking about artists going and living in Far Rockaway. (The assembled artists did not seem warm to that idea.)
  • Another artist asked about doing work in public spaces, and how to negotiate that with the police if, for some reason, they decide its easiest to ask for forgiveness than permission. Van Bramer said that his office is always willing to serve as a go between artists and any city office (including Police Commissioner Kelly), to help them... and the earlier they're involved, the better.
  • Van Bramer spoke about his mission to make the city administration remember that the city includes Queens, not just Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. His example was the planned unveiling of bike-share to include just Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn -- he said "I'm confident that when bike-share is unveiled this summer, it will include Queens."
  • On a question about whether there will ever be a top-down arts policy, Van Bramer shook his head. The City has the best top-down, but when it comes to the state and federal governments, there isn't much. "If we have a country that refuses to ask the wealthy to pay more to support the arts, we will always have trouble."
  • Van Bramer paralleled our struggle for more visibility in the arts to his activism for LGBT rights. If more artists run for office, the arts will have more champions, and political training schools run by advocacy groups are invaluable.
  • On a question about the push for one percent of the city's funding to go to the arts, similar to the one percent of arts education that the Department of Education is recommended to spend, Van Bramer was pragmatic. Not under Bloomberg, who hates to ever have his hands tied on the budget. (He also raised concerns about unevenness in practice of the DoE's 1% for arts) Maybe if a Democrat wins the next election.
Overall, Van Bramer was enthusiastic (he says he was running pretty late to his next meeting), but also practical -- some things he was optimistic about, but he acknowledge that fighting for the arts in this economic crisis is a defensive game.