Asking artists, what do you need?

NEW YORK — Walk around bustling Lower Manhattan this week, and you might come upon prompts to slow down and reflect: “Have you seen the horizon lately?” “Listen to the sound of the Earth turning.”

Asking artists, what do you need?

You can find the phrases on vacant storefronts and transit hubs. Nearby labels identify the author, the artist Yoko Ono. Labels also identify a name you’re less likely to know — the organization presenting Ono’s work in this public context. It’s called the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, but that doesn’t suggest the breadth of what it does for art in New York.

These days, the council is probably best recognized for the River to River Festival, a summer series of free performances and art exhibitions that runs through June 29. Ono’s texts are the inaugural entry in the Reflection Project, a new festival initiative that’s also one of the first ideas proposed by Lili Chopra, the council’s new executive director of artistic programs.

“I see it as urban acupuncture,” said Chopra, who joined the council last April. “This is what we need in New York right now, but it’s also how artists are working.”

Chopra sees those two kinds of need — the needs of artists, the needs of the city — as complementary. And that’s a clue to how she approaches her job and why she now works for the council.

Growing up in Paris, Chopra, 44, was raised with French assumptions about the role of artists in society and the importance of supporting them. Her mother ran a foundation to support playwrights, and Chopra acquired a sense of vocation early on. “I didn’t want to be an artist myself,” she said. “I wanted to be at the service of artists.”

As a teenager, Chopra was already interning with theaters and festivals, finding her way into arts management. After studying journalism, she attended an exchange program at New York University, expecting to stay for six months.

That was 20 years ago. Working for Dance Theater Workshop, among other organizations, she learned how most artists in New York exist: on the margin, always struggling, in need of assistance from people like her.

In 2006, she took a job with the French Institute Alliance Française. “I was thinking, it’s not really my thing to promote French culture,” she said, “but I saw the potential.” Through the creation of Crossing the Line, an influential festival of avant-garde performance, she not only brought French artists to town, turning the institute into a cultural force; more ingeniously, she used French institutions and funds and residencies in France to support New York artists.

“It was a festival,” she said, “that started with the question to artists: What do you need, and where, and why? And then build everything around the project, not a cookie-cutter approach.”

After 12 years at the French Institute, she wanted to help New York artists in a more direct way. “How can we do a better job at creating a more sustainable system for independent artists?” she said. “That’s what motivated me to join LMCC.”

“I feel we have lost some ground since I first came to New York,” she continued. “It’s become way harder to create work. Everybody spends more time raising funds. More and more artists are leaving the city. I understand how exceptional the French context is. Anything compared to that is a disaster. But I also know that sustainability is possible. LMCC is uniquely positioned to help.”

To understand what Chopra means, you have to know a little history. The council was founded in 1973 by Flory Barnett, a local fundraiser, to bring some culture to the area, and it’s changed with the neighborhood. After it lost its World Trade Center home in the Sept. 11 attacks, it worked on attracting people back to the Financial District with art.

River to River, started by the council and several other organizations in 2002, began as that kind of effort. But after the council took full control in 2011, it shifted emphasis away from revitalization and toward artists and their ability to transform spaces like piers, parks and historical landmarks.

The festival has become prestigious, but for decades the council also has run other, less conspicuous programs. Every year, for example, it distributes more than $1.5 million in grants to artists and community organizations — not just in Lower Manhattan, but all across the borough.

And what do New York artists need as much as money? Space to work in, of course. To that end, the council has long operated several residency programs, proving free studios in temporarily donated spaces.

One residency program focuses on dance. The Extended Life program — created by the council’s widely loved previous president, Sam Miller, who died last year — gives choreographers studio space and funding to take works made for theaters and reconceive them for the unconventional sites of River to River. This year, the program has added a Lifeline track, providing a stipend and space without expectation of product.

This Lifeline track — even more than the Reflection Project and the festival focus on slowing down — is an expression of Chopra’s values and how they intersect with the council’s mission. Extending lifelines to New York artists has been her aim all along.

In September, the council will open a renovated arts center on Governors Island: more room for studios, more exhibition space, more permanency and more visibility.

That visibility is necessary “to gain support,” said Diego Segalini, the council’s executive director of finance and administration. “We have to raise millions of dollars year after year.”

Segalini, who joined the organization in 2007, shares leadership responsibilities with Chopra. The two work in hand in hand, he said, though he concentrates on the money side — the funding that comes, in rough thirds, from the government (city and state), from foundations and from corporate and individual donors.

“Neither of us is alone at the top of the pyramid,” he said. Which is good, because the whole organization is under many pressures.

Chopra discussed concerns of equity and access — who, for instance, is on the juries and panels that award grants. She and Danielle King, the director of cultural programs, acknowledged the tensions involved in selecting choreographers for Extended Life: the need to give a few artists difference-making support versus the danger of giving the same few artists larger and larger pieces of the pie.

For all these reasons, it matters who is in charge. “What they do and how they do it is completely dependent on their interests,” said Sarah Michelson, an acclaimed choreographer who, as an Extended Life artist, is presenting her new “june2019/\” on June 24 and 26.

For months, Michelson has been rehearsing at an undisclosed council-provided location, making a lot of noise. “I appreciate the space I have in the deepest possible way,” Michelson said, “but what’s important about Lili is that she’s not afraid to ask hard questions about what artists provide New York City and what New York City provides artists.”

“I feel I can be in partnership with her,” she added. “That is so rare.”

Artists need space and money, but not only that. “If you have the right ideas, you’re going to get space, grants, audience,” said the artist Kamau Ware. “It’s a teach-a-person-to-fish situation.”

Ware, the founder of the Black Gotham Experience, had already started giving walking tours about the early history of black communities in New York City (like those he’ll give for River to River on June 25) when he got his first residency grant from the council. But it was the council’s idea to find him a retail space in the South Street Seaport. “They saw where my idea could go,” he said, “and everything came together for me.”

“It’s not: here’s a building, here’s a check,” he said. “It’s a real relationship.”

Slow down and reflect on that.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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