City Council passes Queens lawmaker’s bill to bring arts and culture to the streets

Photo courtesy of Flushing Town Hall

For many business owners and community members, Open Streets and Open Restaurants became lifelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Open Culture will allow artists to turn streets into their stages.

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer introduced the bill back in August, and on Thursday, Dec. 10, City Council passed the legislation. Since March, cultural institutions, performance venues and artists across the city have not only been forced to stay closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions, but have also received little aid.

With the passage of the legislation, artist and cultural organizations funded by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Borough Arts Council can apply for expedited permits in the Open Streets programs and approved public spaces, while other artists can partner with eligible organizations for permits. This will create an opportunity for cultural organizations to collect much-needed revenue.

Participation in the Open Culture program — which will be administered by the Mayor’s Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management in consultation with the Department of Transportation — will be free, with numerous fees waived and lowered to a maximum charge to $20.

The program would take place from March 1, 2021, to Oct. 31, 2021.

“Arts and culture are the lifeblood of our city. With the new Open Culture program, artists and art groups can start staging performances — and charge for them — starting March 1,” said Van Bramer. “There will be dancing, singing [and] comedy on the streets bringing joy and jobs to thousands. This new law will be a dynamic and transformative program for our cultural community and will create a dynamic open space use — a true win-win.”

While New York State COVID guidelines allowed for some low-risk indoor arts and entertainment to operate at a certain capacity, such as museums and aquariums; other performing arts organizations and businesses considered higher risk, such as theaters and concerts, are not allowed to reopen.

Some have had to permanently close due to the financial strain of paying bills while not collecting any revenue, including the Secret Theatre and comedy club The Creek & The Cave in Long Island City as well as comedy club Dangerfield’s in the Upper East Side.

A report by the Center for an Urban Future, “The Changing Face of Creativity in New York: Sustaining NYC’s Immigrant Arts Ecosystem,” found immigrants now account for nearly a third of all artists in the city. However, their report also found that many immigrant-led and immigrant-serving arts organizations, which were already vulnerable to financial hardships, now face fiscal catastrophe and have reported revenue losses that amount to 50 percent or more of their annual budgets.

Karesia Batan, executive director of the Queensboro Dance Festival, believes the new program is an important step forward.

“This Open Culture bill will truly be a lifeline to the over 200 dance groups and independent artists we support, who all still need to work and create in our Queens neighborhoods,” said Batan. “We have a crucial, basic need for space for dancers to keep NYC arts vibrant and give dancers a chance to generate livable income.”

Taryn Sacramone, executive director of the Queens Theatre, echoed Batan’s sentiments.

“Open Culture will provide much needed opportunities for artists to perform, turn new spaces into stages, and bring shared experiences to all neighborhoods in the city,” said Sacramone. “Arts organizations can start planning now to bring joy, beauty and unforgettable performances outside.”