Beyond repair? On the loss of structural integrity …

geodesic dome and fullerThere is an arts story that has been nagging at me the past couple months. It’s the recent announcement of the revised plans for the NYC Performing Arts Center planned for the former World Trade Center site.

The plan for an arts center at Ground Zero began more than ten years ago. At first the center was to house four arts organizations but three of the four were tapped out several years ago. Only one (the Joyce Theater) still remained as of last year. The project has never really gotten off the ground and plans have changed so many times I couldn’t begin to recount them all. The February announcement basically conveyed that things are changing again: a temporary artistic director (David Lan from the Young Vic in England) has been hired; rather than creating a dance center the new plan is to create a music, theater, and dance center on the model of the Young Vic, but more ambitious; the estimated costs of the project are unknown (though previously were projected between $300 and $700 million); it seems the lack of clarity about the budget may be related to the fact that the architectural design by Frank Gehry may need to be ditched because it was created when the plans for the project were still hazy (hmmm, that’s an expensive mistake); Gehry himself didn’t seem to be aware of this, though, since no one involved with the project had spoken to him in months; and the Joyce Theater may or may not have a future programming role, depending on who you ask.

The situation at the WTC PAC is frustrating and disheartening on multiple levels. I respect many of the people involved, so this is not a concern about individuals or their capacities as directors. Specifically, it’s not about a British director rather than an American being hired for the project (although given the symbolic significance of this project, I am surprised they did not hire someone from New York). And it’s not about whether or not a multi-disciplinary space with three small theaters and a cafe is better than a dance space with 1,000 seats and classrooms, or any of the other plans for the PAC site that have been presented over the years.

It’s about the time for this project having come and gone.

It’s about organizers having, long ago, lost the plot.

More than anything, it’s about having used up all of the do-overs a single entity can reasonably ask of its community.

Not that the community was ever consulted.

Here are my questions:

  1. Who still wants this space? Whose interests does it/will it serve? And given the numerous changes should the citizens of NYC have the opportunity to voice their thoughts on whether this project should still go forward?
  2. What role will it fill in the cultural landscape that is not already being more than adequately filled by other (potentially under-capitalized) organizations? As the article rightly points out the landscape has changed dramatically in the past ten years and there are spaces now available–Park Avenue Armory, the new TFANA space in Brooklyn, the Lincoln Center theater that was previously housing NYCO–that were not available when the PAC was first being planned.
  3. How much has been spent on this project over the past ten years? And on what? Should the public be given an accounting of all the private, tax deductible contributions and government funds that have been received and expended to date?
  4. Is the center the best use of half a billion dollars, or however much it will cost, given other options? And after raising the money to build it, how will it be sustained–particularly if it has a programming strategy modeled on the Young Vic (which seems to be suggested in the article). +
  5. Finally, why has this project had such an extraordinarily difficult time getting off the ground? Shouldn’t this be understood and addressed before additional resources are invested?

On Buckminster Fuller and Structural Integrity

About a month ago, I was reading about Buckminster Fuller and came across a concept that he applied in both his work as an engineer (designing the geodesic dome) and also in his quest as an “ordinary human being” trying to have positive influence in the world. It is the performance characteristic called structural integrity. From an engineer’s perspective structural integrity refers to the ability of a given structure to withstand a designed load under anticipated conditions. In a more metaphorical sense, Fuller used the term structural integrity to refer to a person’s accountability (to the ability to be counted on to do what one has said one will do).

Further describing Fuller’s take on integrity in his 2011 book, A Fuller View, L. Steven Sieden writes:

Bucky’s definition of integrity is structural. Anything that has integrity holds its shape regardless of external circumstances.

In the same book, Jim Reger and David Irvine also reflect on Fuller’s concept of structural integrity, and how it relates to leadership:

Integrity comes from the word “integer,” which means wholeness, integration, and completeness. Being integrated is a necessary condition for self-respect, and self-respect is the basis for creating a respectful environment. Integrity means having clear, explicit principles and doing what you say you’re going to do. It’s about being honest with yourself and others.

After reading these essays on Fuller I began thinking about two things.

The first was about accountability and how this manifests in organizations with no owners. Do nonprofit arts organizations feel accountable to the public? I’m not sure they do. When civic leaders and other community members pleaded for an end to the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, which was harming the local culture, did MSO, Inc. (i.e., the board and leadership) feel accountable to end the lockout and make good on its mission to “enrich, inspire and serve its community” by producing the concerts it had promised (and accepted tax-deductible funds to produce)?  It certainly didn’t look like it from the outside. The musicians did play concerts, however–and the community, unsurprisingly, largely stood behind them. More recently, San Diego Opera didn’t seem to feel the need to keep its community informed about its apparently rapidly deteriorating finances. A couple weeks ago it sent out a puzzling announcement about plans to shut down–a decision that seems to have taken its community by surprise and to have raised hackles, particularly given that everyone had been led to believe that the opera company was doing quite well. Arts organizations talk about accountability to the public; but do they feel it?

The second thing I began to think about after reading a bit on Fuller’s concept of structural integrity centered around the causes of structural failure in nonprofit cultural organizations. When organizations or projects collapse there is a tendency to scrutinize the actions of the current cast of characters and the financial and programming decisions made in recent years; but perhaps in nonprofits–perhaps in cultural nonprofits in particular–the fatal mistakes are the ones we don’t tend to flag … because they don’t hit the P&L statement and the box office totals in the short term.

Perhaps they’re the ones that destroy something more essential to a cultural organization.

Its soul.

Its relationship to its artists and its community.

Its integrity.

The quiet harms that are done to those nonprofits exist to support and serve–the neglect, the taking for granted, the opportunism–may take time to fully register. But when they do, perhaps there is no going back and fixing the damage that has been done.

***

I don’t know when it happened, or how, but (from where I sit) the PAC at the World Trade Center site long ago lost its structural integrity. Or perhaps it never had any? I don’t know. The question now is, can this ever-collapsing structure be turned into something beautiful for the city of New York and the rest of the world, or would it be best to let this cursed project go and allow for the possibility of something entirely new to be created from the ground up.

 

+According to an annual report from 2006 that I located, the Young Vic cost 12.5 million (gbp) to build and its annual turnover was around 3.6 million in 2006, about half of which was funded from the government. It still receives about 1.75 million per year.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. lucy sexton says

    Diane, You raise great questions—all of which could have been answered by the team working on the PAC prior to writing this article. If you are interested in dialogue and seeing if your concerns can be addressed as the PAC moves forward, It would be great to speak with you. Here are a few thoughts in response to the questions you pose:
    Who: I have been working with David Lan and the rest of the PAC team talking to an extraordinary range of artist, arts leaders, curators and producers. Working hard to get a wide range of input from dance, theater, music, and opera artists—as you suggest.
    What: We want the PAC to serve the artists of NY, and to offer a vision and resources that complement the current arts landscape in the city. In meeting with artistic directors of many different organizations, that is what is being proposed: that we find a way that the PAC can work with—rather than compete with— them. David’s vision for the PAC: commissioning new work by NY/US artist in collaboration with international artists is not one that is central to any other major theater in the city. There is room also for a cutting edge digital space in the city–another of the central ideas for the PAC. Also, dance, theater, and opera artists have many thoughts on what is lacking in NY for their fields. It’s an ongoing discussion and process. But we agree that it is only worth building if it serves NY artists in new ways.
    How much: the PAC is public. Its finances are public. Ask and you can get the entire accounting. The basics are that the PAC was part of the initial vision for the rebuild of WTC and $100mil in federal funds were set aside for that purpose. Last year $1mil was released. We can use that money or lose it. But there is not an option of repurposing it.
    Why: As to why it’s been hard to get off the ground, I leave the full answer to an exhaustive article on the politics of NY, of the site, and of the prioritizing of art in our culture. One of my answers as to why the PAC is important is that there is a major rebuild happening, not only of the site but of the entire lower Manhattan area, with a huge influx of retail and residential building. Arts need to be at the center of what NY is about—and the neighborhood badly needs the kind of community gathering and cultural engagement that only art can provide. LMCC does a great job of this, and we are working with them to make sure the PAC provides a focal point. If we cede this most NY neighborhood to retail only, we will lose what makes NY a great city: its art. And if we do it right, the new businesses, office space, workers, tourists, residents, will provide the base of support for the PAC.
    As I said, I look forward to speaking with you and continuing the discussion.
    Lucy Sexton, Assoc Artistic Director, PAC at WTC

    • MWnyc says

      Thanks for a good answer, Lucy.

      One question: Are you folks at the PAC at WTC looking at all at collaborating with Trinity Church Wall Street? For the time being, Trinity seems to be the de facto arts center of the Financial District.

  2. MWnyc says

    Another terrific post, Diane. Thanks.

    Going on 14 years after 9/11/01, it would seem like the arts center should be farther along, but the delays aren’t so surprising for anyone who’s been following what’s been going in down there more generally.

    Basically, I gather, the arts center can’t really get going (in particular, construction con’t start) until other things are finished – the main WTC buildings and especially the PATH station. Those have all taken way longer than they should have – partly because of the ferociously competing interests involved whenever Manhattan real estate is at stake, and partly because of the unique issues surrounding this site.

    (I’m thinking in particular of the de facto veto that some relatives of those killed on 9/11/01 evidently had for a number of years on anything proposed down there, but also the political atmosphere that made people think they had to pay attention to right-wing frothing at the mouth over a Muslim equivalent to the 92nd Street Y being built on top of a Burlington Coat Factory a couple of blocks away.)

    Ten and eleven years ago, most people would not have predicted that by 2014, the only project to be completed down there would be the 9/11 memorial. That’s unfortunate and embarrassing, but we can’t hold the arts center folks responsible for it. Unless they want to walk away from that site and go elsewhere in lower Manhattan (in which case they’d likely have to give up the $100 million in federal funds), they’re very constrained in what they can do until the projects ahead of them in the queue are finished.

    You may be right that the arts center project at the WTC has used up all of the do-overs a single entity can reasonably ask of its community, but it’s not really fair to say that the project’s time has come and gone. Its time, through no fault of its own, hasn’t even arrived yet.

  3. Gregory Mosher says

    Thanks, Diane.

    Dear Lucy (if I may),

    Most people would like a thriving downtown, and more art. No one here questions the goal, or anybody’s intentions. The problems are with the plan itself:

    First, the numbers are grotesque. $600 million to build 800 seats? To put this in perspective, I had lunch with a new artistic director of an esteemed small theater last week. He needs $200 thousand to get out of a hole so he can keep paying artists. His hole is .000003% of the proposed PAC’s building cost. One thirty-thousandth.

    Diane notes that LMDC is pursuing a 12 year-old idea, one that’s already become outdated by changes in the city. I agree, but I suspect that the whole notion of a PAC is outdated. It’s very mid-20th century, so Robert Moses. A better model is DUMBO, which focused on artists, not arts institutions, though of course it now hosts them. David Lan, whom I’m happy to call a friend, knows this. He went into a dodgy neighborhood, started small, did great work, and connected with the community show by show. His Young Vic is a vital, thriving theater, not a PAC. They’re different beasts.

    Even if a PAC was a good idea, it can’t be, as some hopefully assume, another Lincoln Center. This is because Lincoln Center welcomed from its first moment the artists, boards, and audiences of four of NYC’s greatest organizations, the Met Opera, Philharmonic, City Opera, and the New York City Ballet. The one organization created out of whole cloth – the Vivian Beaumont – struggled for 20 years.

    Yes, the Federal $100 million is committed. And downtown needs arts activity more than it needs another parking lot. But why does this imply a PAC? It’s obvious there’s been no urgency to create it. I’ve never heard anyone say, man, what we need is a PAC downtown. What I do hear, every day, is the urgent need to help the good arts orgs that got whacked by 911, the recession, and Hurricane Sandy. What’s even more urgent is to bring the next, very diverse, generation of artists into NYC’s cultural conversation before they give up or move away. So here’s one idea for how to spend $100 million: How about subsidizing affordable artist housing, and then building (or building out) modest spaces for them to use as they choose. Cheap and cheerful. The artists will do the rest, as they did in Soho, Tribeca, Chelsea, W’burg, and Queens. If LMDC can identify and answer a real need, those who are indifferent or scornful will become boosters, don’t you think? Wouldn’t that be better than whipping up enthusiasm for a the best version yet of a weak idea?

    I know you’re all talking to a wide range of curators and producers. But we’re all vulnerable to confirmation bias. We can’t help but hear what we want to hear. On the flip side, they may be telling you what they think you want to hear. $100 million to hand out will do that. Diane’s commitment to art would be, I imagine, unquestioned, but already people are jumping on her, trying to refute her, rather than taking it in. So here’s a suggestion: Set up a website where you take comments, and maybe launch it with Diane’s post and your reply.. Read the first hundred before you rebut, so people know you’re listening. Here’s another idea: hold public meetings, one in each borough. Some theaters will host on Monday nights, I bet. It might be good to hear from people who make the art, not just arts administrators, and lots of them.

    The goal of the Lower Manhattan Development Council is to develop lower Manhattan. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s their job. Artists might help them with that, and gain in the process. It’s all good.. But no one should think the arts are the dog. We’re the tail. The goal is to get that part of the city revved up, and that’s a good goal. Our goal is complementary, but not exactly the same, Some arts boosters are well intentioned but ill informed, and they need to learn from you, because you’re the experts. Some are caught in good ideas from the past, and need to be guided to the future. Some are just using the arts, but that’s completely okay; if the arts generate action in the district, they’ll be happy however it happens.

    The good citizens of NYC are generous, but they aren’t gullible. There’s not going to contribute almost a million dollars per seat for new theaters. Rather than wait for that outcome, I urge all involved to take a blank sheet of paper, listen to lots of people, young and old, established and striving, and then apply your considerable wisdom and unquestioned dedication to do something magnificent, something that makes people shake their heads in wonder at your imagination and courage. It’s a great opportunity, and I wish you success with that.

    Sincerely,
    Gregory Mosher

  4. says

    Dear Diane,

    What a wonderful analysis! Thank you for your writing. It wakes me up of my role in music.

    Between 2006-2012, I studied music in NYC for 6 years. During that period of time, I have enjoy the glamorous musical scenes in NY, never once have I thought of the closing of the New York City Opera would have happened. I was being fully supported for my studies all 6 years, never once have I thought of how hard it takes to raise all the scholarship I have received.

    Retrospectively, I realized that I was living in a colorful and protective bubble. It was transient and beautiful. The school I attended definitely has the structural integrity you pointed out in your post. It makes me wonder where is the fine line between responsibility: both the arts organization and the ‘citizens’ in it.

    Is the sustainability of a project/arts organization/plan purely the responsibility of the arts administrators? Is it not part of the responsibility of the ‘citizen’ that ‘cohabit’ in that environment? Imagine if one the reason that postponed the execution of the PAC at WTC was that New Yorkers do not need another performing arts center equivalent of many other functional ones such as the Lincoln Center, which is located on the same island as the WTC.

    What is the role and character of a citizen in any given country?

    Aren’t we all part of the sustainability and structural integrity?

    I believe that Everyone counts. We are all responsible the sustain the beautiful bubble for one another.

    Sincerely,
    Hui

  5. Thor says

    Diane’s assessment is certainly compelling, and I would add one more critical point to her argument. PACs have burgeoned nation-wide in the past 15 years, in cities large and small, and on college campuses. But the jury is still out: are their operations financially sustainable, are they a net positive for local artists and arts organizations, can we capitalize them and avoid the deferred maintenance quicksand once these facilities start to age, and what are the opportunity costs for directing funds to these new shining temples when so many other needs in our field are unmet?

    Having survived the darkest hours of the Philadelphia Orchestra bankruptcy as the Vice President of Strategy for the orchestra’s landlord, the Kimmel Center, I have obsessively contemplated these topics. And though each city and each PAC is unique, there are fungible truths. And though things in Philly look brighter, the questions I pose above still remain unanswered.

    Before adding one more PAC to the NYC ecosystem, I propose one more question to Diane’s many: has the leadership at WTC/PAC undertaken its due diligence, studying and benchmarking the trials and triumphs in Kansas City, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Miami, Dallas, and many more? I know it may be anathema for NY to look to the provinces for advice, but if they haven’t done so, they’re denying themselves important learnings that can only be acted upon in this phase of the project, in the seemingly never-ending planning phase.

    • MWnyc says

      Thor, I’m not sure that the WTC/PAC authorities have yet had time to study those other cities’ PACS – not because they think they shouldn’t have to look at other cities, but because they didn’t even really have any paid staff other than the Executive Director herself until just a few months ago. There may not have been enough manpower even to select and supervise any consultants to do such a study.

      Yes, the process has been moving THAT slowly.

      That slowness seems to be why Diane is suggesting that it’s now too late even to bother trying to build a PAC down there.

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