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Fund Me, Kate!

New NYC cultural commissioner Kate Levin talks with Mike Salinas about her theater background and the challenges of her job. logo
Kate Levin at work
(Photo: Brian P. Carmichael)
Of all the changes Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made during his first weeks in office, probably none has more relevance to the theater community than his appointment of City College theater professor Kate Levin to head the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. Levin replaces Schuyler Chapin, who at the time of his appointment was already famous as a former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. She is somewhat less well known among arts afficionados in New York, and even to Bloomberg until recently -- "I think I met him socially a couple of years ago at some big reception, but mostly I met him when he interviewed me for the job," Levin told in a recent interview -- but as the commissioner who now oversees millions of dollars in allocations to arts organizations each year, she instantly assumes a significance that should make her name familiar to every theater and dance company in New York.

Levin says that she didn't expect to be offered the position, even though several members of the search committee specifically asked her to apply for it. "Originally I said no," she says, "but it seemed to be an opportunity to put some ideas out there, on the chance that other applicants weren't offering them. I suspect what made my particular set of skills appealing was the combination of my administrative experience, the fact that I've been a consultant for lots of different kinds of groups--not just performing arts groups--and my academic background, because arts education is so vital."

Other Voices, Other Modes
Born in New York in 1961, Levin was introduced to theater at the age of five when she acted in a community theater production--"I think it was The Mikado"--and continued to perform through her college years. After graduating with a B.A. in History and Literature from Harvard and a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley, she distinguished herself as an authority on late 16th and early 17th century theater, both as a director and author of scholarly papers. "I think it's terrific stuff and it never gets produced," she says of those plays. "Unless we hear other kinds of voices and other modes of art, I think we lose a key part of the mix. Given how focused we tend to be on Shakespeare, whether we know it or not, I think it's essential that we try to revisit material that was being written by his contemporaries. Some of it's just extraordinary, and the way that it differs from his work is quite amazing. Also, I've done most of my directing in an academic context, so it makes sense: It's wonderful material for students, for lots of reasons."

Levin describes her tastes as eclectic and says that, if she had to choose between a night out at the Broadway smash The Producers or at that hotbed of experimental theater, La MaMa, "I'd probably say La MaMa just because I know that I'd be more surprised by what I found there. However," she adds, "that's not to knock The Producers. I haven't seen it yet, but I think Susan Stroman is extraordinary and I'd like to see more of her work."

Levin said she would like to see more theatergoers be "as adventurous as possible," not only by seeing plays from long ago but by patronizing theaters that are relatively far away. "I would encourage people who really love the theater to seek out the works of artists who don't happen to be on the particular pathways that certain theater lovers are accustomed to," she says. "There are theater groups all over the city in every borough. One thing we hope to do at DCA in the next couple of months is mount on our website a map of the entire city with groups that we fund plotted on it--and groups that we are unable to fund. There are lots of fabulous groups that we can't fit into our budget."

Responsible Use of Levies
Like all department heads under the new mayor, Levin was faced with the task of cutting back her agency's budget as soon as she arrived. However, she said, Bloomberg only asked for a 15% cut in the DCA expense budget as compared to the 20% that other departments were ordered to trim. "And," she says gratefully, "he's also done a very remarkable thing, which is to allow those cuts to be made at the discretion of this agency. He's very concerned that we be able to acknowledge that in all funding cycles--but particularly in this cycle, with the combined effects of a severe recession and the effects of September 11--some groups are going to be in significantly worse shape than others, and it would be a responsible use of tax levy dollars to be able to acknowledge particular needs." The department actually has two budgets, an expense budget that has hovered around $125,000 for several years and a capital budget that is currently set at some $1.7 billion over a 10-year period. The latter provides the lion's share of funding to arts groups, Levin said, although the former is used to fund last-minute requisitions.

Another view of Levin
(Photo: Brian P. Carmichael)
"The key thing to know about the agency is that it was established as a funding conduit for contributions to cultural organizations," says Levin. "Its funding stream was initiated in the 1860s when the City of New York went to a group of individuals and said that the city would help build and maintain a facility if the group created a collection to display there. What resulted was the Museum of Natural History. The agency grew out of an office that was originally in the Parks Department--it was the Department of Parks and Recreation and Culture originally, I think--until the mid-1970s. At that point, a panel of distinguished New Yorkers was convened and recommended that the agency be given a separate footing because cultural funding required different kinds of sensitivities than strictly Parks and Recreation."

Even now, notes Levin, the agency has "a fair amount of policymaking authority but not a huge amount of funding discretion." Around 85% of its capital budget goes to a group of 35 institutions under the prosaic umbrella name of the Cultural Institution Group, while the remaining 15% is allocated to approximately 600 organizations in various disciplines. In addition, city council members and borough presidents can, and do, go through a process to put additional items in the expense budget. The DCA does not use a peer panel process to select recipients, as the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts do, giving that power instead to elected officials. Because of this, Levin admits, the agency has been accused of being "very ad hoc and without policy." Even so, she is able to find benefits in the way it works.

"The awkwardness of that process is that it often seems that funding is incoherent," she allows, "but I have to say that, in the aggregate, I think cultural dollars are spent very wisely and cover a range of needs that serve a range of communities. If you look at it strategically, the DCA has taken its hits over the years; but if you compare it to what's happened at the state level or the federal level, arts funding has been relatively consistent, and I think that's really because elected officials feel they are essential to the process."

Tracking Articulations
Unfortunately, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, it has become more evident than ever that the funding process is ill-equipped to deal with sudden crises. "We hope to help stabilize arts groups in the city, but we don't have the capacity to respond urgently with funding," Levin admits. "We're locked into a particular budget cycle. What's wonderful is that the philanthropic community has been able to move a lot faster than the city. So, by the time we're looking at applications and working with elected officials in dealing with allocations two months down the road, hopefully the urgent 9-11 needs will have already been addressed."

Levin specifically praises the Mellon Foundation for reaching out to groups affected by the September 11 tragedy and says that the DCA is considering working with that foundation to see if it and the groups that have applied to it might share their applications, thereby giving the agency a better snapshot of the current situation. "As a city agency," she says, "we really need to be tracking articulations of need and long-term effects." Currently, the agency is processing the results of a study initiated by Chapin and the chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts on how the attacks affected the community; a future study will provide a more focused analysis of Cultural Institutions Group members and another will examine institutions' ability to rebound.

While recognizing the specific needs of downtown arts groups after the attacks, Levin says she believes that, "in the not-for-profit community as a whole, the effects have not been necessarily geographically limited." Aside from the terrorist attack, she said, there are plenty of problems for New York arts groups to overcome. "There are some obvious and critical issues that are always affecting the theater," she says. "For the past 20 years, space has been a particularly acute one." It is therefore to all groups, and not only those most obviously in the former shadow of the World Trade Center, that Levin would like to increase the DCA's outreach. Moreover, she adds, "I would say that the single most valuable thing you can do aside from getting in touch with this agency is getting in touch with your elected officials--your local council member, your borough president--because those are the people who are going to be able to advocate on your behalf most strongly and be most sensitive in terms of a range of services.

"I would encourage the theater community to become as educated and involved as possible," Levin says in conclusion. "I can tell you from where I'm sitting now, from the perspective of government, that it's often difficult to help arts groups to advocate for themselves because they haven't always done their homework. The bottom line is that the job of arts groups is to make art, and that's as it should be; but if you want to benefit as fully as possible from the funding process, from the political process, there's no substitute for direct and immediate involvement."

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