On July 19, 2017, the City of New York released CreateNYC, New York City’s first-ever cultural plan. To shape the plan design, the city worked with dozens of local organizations, which helped gather feedback from nearly 200,000 residents. Among those many partners was the Asian American Arts Alliance (A4), which was committed to ensuring that the voices of NYC artists & residents in the AAPI community were included in the planning process.

In February 2017, I worked with the amazing Andrea Louie, Anjali Goyal, and Ariel Estrada of A4 to create an interactive workshop and online survey infused with a social practice artist’s spirit, to delve into what A4’s community believed was and wasn’t working when it came to arts and culture in New York City. About 50 people attended the workshop at Elmhurst Library in Queens, and 70 additional people participated in the online survey.

Over and over again, we heard that city’s arts & culture needs, challenges, and plans must be intrinsically connected to the other critical challenges facing the city, including affordable housing, arts education, and fostering a more compassionate and equitable culture. As sharers moved fluidly between social issues, economic issues, and recommendations specific to makers and arts & culture institutions, they emphasized that mindset shifts were needed, not just completing a set of tactics.

“Help us control the out-of-control rents in New York City,” shared one survey respondent. “It is choking everyone on all levels. The biggest expense for artists, especially performing artists, is space. When artists cannot afford space, no art will be created. For communities, the struggle to afford rent has a hugely negative impact on our quality of life, our ability to progress in our career endeavors, and how we spend our time and money… The arts are leaving New York City because it is simply impossible to survive here.”

If we want to protect the future vibrancy of the city, then we must see the arts as integral to health and development, supporting STEAM from the beginning of education; if we want arts and culture planning and funding to be equitable and inclusive, then city employees must first deeply understand and acknowledge the manifestations of bias before they can build processes that will be successful.

Many participants in the workshop expressed appreciation for the opportunity to voice their concerns and contribute their creativity. What we recognized in planning for feedback, however, was that there are no common definitions or understanding of what ‘arts’ and ‘culture’ are– let alone what they should be. To understand what’s missing and needed requires ongoing engagement, listening, and time.

A4 ultimately encouraged the Department of Cultural Affairs to integrate ongoing engagement and feedback loops into the ten-year plan itself, particularly if DCA is committed to equity and seeks to build relationships with communities that are currently not included in dialogue.

Click here for the full report I wrote and designed, including background materials for facilitators and participants.