julia foulkes

Borough Arts Councils

Where the arts occurred in New York City changed in the 1960s-70s. Grand cultural complexes such as Lincoln Center consolidated the performing arts of opera, symphony, theater, and ballet. Television brought the arts to family living rooms, much as radio had done starting in the 1920s. The opening of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center was broadcast in September 1962 with performances of Copland, Beethoven, and Mahler. And the arts moved outdoors, with Shakespeare in the Park and events on the plaza of Lincoln Center.

The arts also moved into neighborhoods.

Manhattan has long been the centrifugal force in the arts of New York City, the place to which attention, talent, and money has been directed. Efforts began to combat that centralization in the 1960s with the establishment of borough-specific arts councils. Newly elected John Lindsay supported these efforts when he arrived in the Mayor’s office in January 1966. Robert Wagner, his predecessor, had created the first municipal-level agency devoted to cultural affairs in 1962, which intervened in the political machinations in the making of Lincoln Center and in running other cultural institutions placed on city-owned land, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This centralization, though, reinforced the inequities between Manhattan and the other boroughs. Money, resources, people flowed like the transit system—all routes in the direction of Manhattan.

By the 1960s, though, people insisted on staunching that flow and redirecting it to boroughs other than Manhattan. Starting in 1961, Gerald Klot, a school principal in the Bronx, gathered community leaders to coordinate summer arts activities for kids. By 1969, the Bronx Council on the Arts had consolidated smaller organizations to provide direct services to artists and community-based arts groups, with funding by the city’s department of cultural affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts (a temporary agency established in 1960 that became permanent in 1965). The council worked with Bronx Community College and local businesses in an effort to combat negative images of the Bronx and to keep the middle class from moving away.

Arts Councils in Queens and Brooklyn followed in 1966. The council in Queens fixated on having a cultural center in the borough and, by 1971, established a complex-of-a-kind by proposing that three existing government buildings from the 1964 World’s Fair be transformed into places for the arts. The Federal Pavilion became the Queens Museum of Art; the New York State Pavilion would be utilized for performances; and the New York City Pavilion would be a place for workshops. The Brooklyn council started with a small film festival and primarily presented arts programming in its initial years. The council ran the Downtown Cultural Center at 111 Willoughby Street, where Spike Lee, Danny DeVito, and Suzan-Lori Parks got their start in the performing arts.

Implicit in the beginning of the Harlem Cultural Council in 1965 was the recognition that the city remained segregated by race, in its cultural support and flourishing as much as in real estate, city services, and wealth. As in Queens, there was a call for a cultural center in Harlem, and some push to make it happen when a state office building was constructed on 125th Street in the early 1970s, efforts which failed. The council’s most notable innovations, though, were the Jazzmobile and Dancemobile—bringing music and dance to different streets of the neighborhood. These outdoors performances, run from a flatbed truck, gathered local audiences for performances by student as well as famous artists, such as pianist Billy Taylor and dancer/choreographer Eleo Pomare. It featured artists from the neighborhood for the neighborhood and was such a resounding success in its first year, in 1965, that it planned to have a Dancemobile, Operamobile, Dramamobile, Sciencemobile, and Puppetmobile. “The expansion of what one might call, operation Mobile, will place as many as three units in various sections of Harlem on a single night,” a September 1966 newsletter declared. (This operation does not appear to have happened.) The council also sponsored an art exhibition at Retter’s Furniture Store on 125th Street and opera programs in the area’s public schools.

Proliferating councils across the boroughs is an inexact representation of the spread of the arts. It may better be understood as an indication of the dominance of Manhattan and the large number of large cultural institutions located in that borough. It also indicates, however, the rise of attention, leverage, and status accorded to the arts. People in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens—and the neighborhood of Harlem—recognized that there was new power to where the arts were located. And the councils insisted that the arts happened there.