CreateNYC: A Cultural Plan for All New Yorkers | Big Bold Cities

CreateNYC: A Cultural Plan for All New Yorkers

Engaging 200,000 Residents to Increase Arts and Cultural Equity

three colored squaresCreateNYC: A Cultural Plan for All New Yorkers


New York City developed its first-ever comprehensive cultural plan by employing an expansive definition of culture and listening carefully to the experts: arts organizations, advocates, academics, City agencies and tens of thousands of New Yorkers. Through iterative outreach that engaged nearly 200,000 residents, the CreateNYC process researched and discussed a wide range of issues affecting the creation, funding and consumption of arts and culture—including housing and studio space, arts education, public art, and how arts and culture interact with economic development, social inclusion and land use. CreateNYC’s decentralized outreach included not only dedicated surveys, workshops and office hours, but also showing up at community events and providing downloadable engagement guides.

Democratic Challenge

The importance of art and culture for a vibrant, healthy community cannot be overstated. Increased engagement with arts and culture has been linked to higher levels of civic engagement and better health, schooling, security, and overall quality of life, especially in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. However, artists and arts and culture organizations who serve and represent marginalized communities may not be organized as a political force, and arts policy and funding often caters to a privileged subset of society.

How’d They Do It?   

The New York City Council passed legislation in 2015 that required the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) to submit a comprehensive cultural plan to the mayor, council and public by 2017, with progress reports every two years thereafter. The law required establishment of a 12-member unpaid citizens’ advisory committee, and specified nine areas the plan would address, including “the role of the community outreach process in the development of the plan,” and “feedback from a robust community outreach process.”

The DCLA selected the non-profit Hester Street—an urban planning, design and development organization that specializes in community engagement—to lead development of the plan. Hester Street developed a process, in partnership with Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts-New York (NOCD-NY) and other organizations, to synthesize existing research and planning while engaging New Yorkers to solicit new input and develop a comprehensive plan.

“Our goal was to go both broad and deep with the engagement process so that we could get community input from all over the city, regardless if people had 5 minutes or 1 hour,” said Nisha Baliga, Hester Street deputy director. “Our toolkit was also designed to engage people with disabilities, non-English speakers and ages 5 -95.” 

NOCD-NY Director Caron Atlas emphasized that a broad and inclusive definition of arts and culture was used, with the perspective that residents are participants in the arts, not just consumers of it.

“People were engaged all over the city, in in-depth community-led planning processes, focus groups, and taking the time to refine recommendations,” Atlas said. “It was important that the process not only convened people, but also went to where people were already gathering, such as community festivals. It also proactively engaged people who are not often included in planning processes, such as public housing residents.”

The process was:

Research _ Discovery (Aug. 2016 to March 2017): Diving into studies and data, reviewing existing cultural plans and policies, mapping cultural assets.

Public Engagement (Oct. 2016 to March 2017): The CreateNYC process reached more than 188,000 New Yorkers in person and online through borough-wide workshops, library partnerships, focus groups, presentations, office hours, surveys, and participation in public events. The engagement process was also decentralized through publication of a downloadable community engagement toolkit, available in six languages, and training for any organization or individual interested in hosting an event. Then-Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl played ping pong and discussed arts and culture with anyone who wanted to at public events; he ended up playing 22 games. To supplement the City’s outreach, 10 community-based organizations received grants to organize and engage their communities, and gather feedback for the plan. The process reached New Yorkers in 99 percent of the city’s zip codes.

Readout, Drafting and More Feedback. (May-June 2017): Create NYC published raw input, event notes, and research from community partners. This revealed, among other things, that 40 percent of arts and culture workers cannot afford supplies and tools. CreateNYC conducted more workshops, focus groups, a public opinion poll, online surveys and office hours to receive feedback on draft proposals.

Release of the Final Plan. (July 2017) The final published plan highlighted key ‘headlines’ that New Yorkers repeatedly emphasized:

  • Arts and culture are for all.
  • Quality arts education for every student.
  • The staff and leadership of the city’s arts and cultural sector should more fully reflect the diversity of our city’s population.
  • Equitable distribution of arts and culture across the boroughs.
  • Neighborhood culture matters.
  • Better, more streamlined ways to access information about cultural programming.

How’s It Going?   

The development of CreateNYC sparked a vigorous political dialogue about arts and culture in New York. Activists criticized the City’s plan, arguing that it did not go far enough to address the ways that communities of color are systematically underfunded and dispossessed, often under the guise of promoting culture. They created their own plan, titled the People’s Cultural Plan (PCP), which focuses on Equitable Housing, Land, _ Development Politics; Labor Equity; and Public Funding Equity. One Citizens’ Advisory Committee member envisioned a way the two plans could work together, acknowledging DCLA’s political constraints and praising CreateNYC for its partnership with the disability community; its acknowledgment that communities outside Manhattan had been underfunded; its commitment to diversity; its plan for working with other departments to address housing, education, policing and other issues; and its publication of useful data.

When the plan was released, the City announced that it would be investing additional funding in the Cultural Affairs department and in the development of future arts and culture professionals of color, and would use its financial clout to push arts organizations to ensure that both staff and leadership reflect the city’s diversity.

In 2018, the city launched Affordable Real Estate for Artists, or AREA, with a goal of creating 500 affordable arts workspaces in all five boroughs over 10 years. The program recruits nonprofit organizations to provide studio spaces on city properties.

In 2018, the city’s CreateNYC Disability Forward Fund invested $640,000 across 22 arts organizations and cultural institutions to support artists and audience members with disabilities. This pilot grant program was a direct outgrowth of the CreateNYC cultural plan.

Innovation Point of Contact

Betsy Maclean
Executive Director
Hester Street
Nisha Baliga
Deputy Director
Hester Street

Who Else Is Trying This

Boulder, Colorado

Boulder developed a citywide cultural plan with input from local residents and artists, using ‘Culture Kitchen’ pop-up survey booths, ‘Taste Test’ presentations of alternate strategies, and other online and offline tools. City leaders also made a push to bring more artists onto key boards and committees, to preserve the community’s voice in policymaking after the plan was published. Read more

Concord, California

Struggling with a funding shortfall, Concord launched an initiative called “Penny for Your Thoughts” in 2014. The city knew it had to make cuts to balance its budget, but leaders worried about a public backlash. So they had citizens play a game where they were given 30 one-cent coins to distribute into cups representing different parts of the city government. A lot of people wondered aloud while playing the game if they could contribute their own pocket change. So the town passed a referendum for a small sales tax instead of going ahead with the planned cuts. Read more