Art collector Aby Rosen shared happy news at the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) on October 16. Executive director Lisa Robb was now a grandmother. “Her daughter had a child,” Rosen, NYSCA’s volunteer chairman, announced at the agency’s Flatiron district office. “So we’re wishing her all good things in life.”
To be with her daughter and daughter’s newborn, Robb took a week off. She missed one of the council’s five public meetings last year and arguably the most important, when it reviewed most of the grant recommendations. Robb missed the equivalent meeting in 2013, with a case of the flu. She didn’t participate in either one by telephone.
“I don’t feel that attending to my health and my first-born grandchild means that I don’t have a deep commitment to the agency,” said Robb, who was appointed to the $110,000-a-year position three years ago, in an interview.
The absences were unusual for an executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts, which the state legislature created in 1960 at the behest of Governor Nelson Rockefeller to preserve and expand cultural activities through grants. NYSCA was the first state arts council in the country and inspired the 1965 creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, Richard Norton Smith wrote in his Nelson Rockefeller biography, On His Own Terms. Like Rosen, Rockefeller and the first NYSCA chairman, Buffalo banker Seymour Knox, were avid art collectors.
Rosen said he’s seeking to elevate the storied agency, which in recent years has had a rough stretch. Millions of dollars in grants—which generally subsidize operating costs of nonprofit arts organizations—were delayed as NYSCA struggled to adapt to new statewide accounting and contracting systems. Some cultural organizations that depend on NYSCA resorted to bridge loans and laying off and furloughing staff to stay afloat.
Rosen, whom Governor Andrew Cuomo nominated for the position in 2011, described himself in a telephone interview as a friend of the governor who advocates on NYSCA’s behalf. Some arts leaders credit Rosen and Robb with helping to stabilize its budget after dramatic cuts following the financial crisis of 2009. Others lament that the developer, a mainstay in the press for his battles with preservationists and his annual dinner at Art Basel in Miami Beach, hasn’t been enough of a public advocate for the arts and arts funding.
“We read more about him as a personality than in terms of his leadership of the state arts council,” said Ted Berger, former executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, which provides grants and other resources to artists. “The arts community is in a major crisis, where leadership is desperately needed, particularly leadership in the public sector.”
“I work for a lot of different museums,” said Rosen, a Frankfurt native who’s a trustee of the New Museum. “I raise a lot of different money. Could I do more public? Probably. The more I do public the better it is and the more it turns people on and they want to participate.”
The agency flourished most under the actress Kitty Carlisle Hart, who appeared in films with the Marx Brothers and Bing Crosby and on the television game show To Tell the Truth. As chairman from 1976 to early 1996, she was a regular presence at the agency and visited ribbon cuttings statewide and legislators in Albany. “They all loved meeting with her, so she could always get a hearing,” said Beverly D’Anne, a former ballet dancer who ran NYSCA’s dance program from 1980 to the summer of 2011.
NYSCA’s budget peaked at nearly $60 million in the 1989–90 fiscal year, equivalent to about $114 million in today’s dollars. (The current appropriation is about $42 million, which includes agency expenses and up to $5 million for projects that promote tourism and economic development.) Hart boasted in her 1988 autobiography that after a flight to Albany with Donna Shalala, then president of the University of Wisconsin, Shalala warned a friend against flying with Hart. Otherwise, one disembarks with a long list of favors one’s obligated to do for the council.
It has operated akin to an independent foundation. Staffers review applications and rely on comments from panels of experts in specific disciplines. They also informally advise nonprofits. Grants, generally $2,500 to $130,000 each, are awarded in such fields as arts education, dance, folk arts, museums and theater. They confer a seal of approval. “If you’re not getting NYSCA money, another funder may wonder why not,” said Linda Shelton, the executive director of the Joyce Theater, who interned at the council in the early 1980s.
NYSCA is particularly vital for small, community-based organizations, according to Andrea Louie, executive director of the Asian American Arts Alliance and a NYSCA panelist in literature. More than half of the state’s arts groups have budgets under $250,000, according to the nonprofit Cultural Data Project. But most U.S. arts funding from foundations support organizations with budgets of $5 million or more, according to a 2011 study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Small organizations are less likely to have development staffs and connections with wealthy donors.
Applicants of all sizes have seen their awards shrink. The Soho-based Drawing Center got $39,000 this year, down from $86,000 in 2000. Art in General, which provides exhibition space and funding for artists, received $33,644, from $58,400 in 2000. And well before Rosen’s arrival, the agency had shed some of its character. Specialized program directors were forced to become generalists. They could no longer hire local independent consultants or reviewers around the state to see artworks and then file written reports. Staff trips to meet with organizations and to see exhibitions and performances were suspended. “It’s hard to kick the tires remotely,” said Anne Van Ingen, NYSCA’s director of the architecture, planning and design program and capital projects, from 1986 to 2010. “It’s very difficult to judge quality in a visual art and be helpful from afar.”
Rosen, who contributed $53,000 to Andrew Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign in 2013, cut operating expenses by consolidating NYSCA staff on a single floor in new offices on Park Avenue South. He displayed bright Warhol prints on the walls and introduced the type of open-seating configuration that is common on trading floors. “There’s no private this, and private that,” Rosen said. “We made it far more of a transparent, more of a modernistic environment, in order to really represent the arts.” Some staffers have another point of view; they have deemed it poorly suited for their frequent phone meetings and they have missed the quiet when writing reports and grant summaries. (After an initial phone interview in December, Rosen didn’t make himself available for follow-up questions.)