Sparking Downtown Culture

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

With plans for the Freedom Tower now set, Lower Manhattan’s arts community faces a renewal of sorts, too. In 1973, David Rockefeller founded the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council with the goal of bringing arts and culture around the newly constructed World Trade Center. Though the LMCC was almost wiped out by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it has more than bounced back.

For the past two years, former art dealer Tom Healy has helped the LMCC grow in size and influence, with more than $2 million to disperse to arts groups annually. While its growth has inspired gratitude among its constituents, the LMCC plays a dual role – as both service organization and arts presenter – that might present problems.

Now, with downtown momentum picking up, the LMCC will play an even more prominent role. But what exactly is that role?

From the beginning, Mr. Healy said, the cultural plan for the World Trade Center site, which called for an arts facility right by the memorial, was unworkable.” Using Ground Zero as the focal point didn’t make sense to me,” he said. “You should look at the cultural life of all the downtown neighborhoods and connect Ground Zero to that, in a more organic way – not the kind of mini-Lincoln Center model, a kind of island near the memorial.”

Since its founding,the LMCC has had a three-part mission: distributing grants to artists and organizations; creating its own programming; and advocating for the arts through services and general assistance. LMCC’s grant-making role has grown in the last several years, largely due to Mr. Healy, who took over from the previous executive director, Liz Thompson, in 2003. Soon after taking the job, he sought financial assistance from the September 11th Fund, a nonprofit created by the New York Community Trust and the United Way of New York City that raised $534 million.

Mr. Healy argued that some of the funds should go to arts groups. And it did. The LMCC received $5 million to distribute over three years. The sum breaks down to about $1.3 million a year, which LMCC gives to downtown arts groups in grants for collaborative marketing, public art, and construction or renovation of facilities. LMCC also distributes funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. In another coup, Mr. Healy helped convince the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to make $27 million in grants to arts groups.

“They saw that, with the $5 million, we could be really effective.” Mr. Healy said.” They saw that were tangible ways you could spend money and have it leverage other money and activities, so that it was an investment rather than a straightforward grant.”

Mr. Healy’s skill as an advocate has won over once-skeptical constituents, such as founder and artistic director of Battery Dance Company, Jonathan Hollander. “Tom is smart, and he has impressed business leaders and government leaders,” Mr. Hollander said.” The biggest thing was getting LMDC to release that money.”

Last year, Battery Dance, along with other organizations on White Street, including the Manhattan Children’s Theater and Access Theatre Company, received a $20,000 grant to promote the street as a cultural destination.

“They were amazingly supportive and worked very hard to assure that we maximized the grant,” the producing director of Access Theatre, Stephen Speights, said.

“Tom Healy really has a vision,” the artistic director of the Soho Repertory Theater, Daniel Aukin, said.

LMCC operates with an annual budget of $6 million.The money that doesn’t go out as grants goes to LMCC’s programming, operations, and services, such as seminars and residency projects for artists.

LMCC’s double role as a service organization and a producer, however, raises questions. Are small companies competing against LMCC’s own projects? How fair can judging be when LMCC has its hand in producing as well?

The answer to that, according to Mr. Healy, lies in the multiplicity of opinions: All LMCC grants are awarded by outside panels. As for how LMCC balances fund-raising for its own projects versus those of other arts groups, he said: “I try to be strategic and opportunistic. I listen to what funders are interested in, and I make the case that we can meet the goals that they have. We have lots of projects that we want to do and lots of projects we want to fund with others. I’ll present the array of possibilities. But I don’t see them competing.”

The major question now is what the organization’s purpose will be two years from now, when the $5 million from the September 11th Fund has been dispersed. At that point, Mr. Healy believes the LMCC will be in a better position to fund-raise from corporations and foundations. “We will have really strong evidence to say to companies and foundations that we could do similar investments with them, and use their money wisely,” he said.

The New York Sun

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