For performance artists across New York City, today is a turning point in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Cultural institutions and entertainment venues can now begin applying for Open Culture, an initiative to revive performance arts after a year of shutdowns. “Although the COVID-19 [pandemic] has impacted the entire arts sector, nowhere has the effect been more direct, deep, and immediate than on the performing arts,” stated a COVID-19 impact analysis conducted by Argonne National Laboratory. Open Culture is a long-awaited step for the sector widely noted as the first to have closed and the last to reopen.
This new program launched by the mayor’s Street Activity Permit Office allows performance artists and venues—like theater companies, comedy clubs, and concert halls—to host outdoor performances on select streets across all five boroughs. The application fee is $20, but the permit is free. And aside from creating space for artists and audiences to reconnect, the program allows institutions to ticket the events. Though artists have been able to perform outdoors in the past, license to charge admission is novel to Open Culture. For the first time in nearly a year, these culture makers can begin generating revenue. Hosting official performances will also help artists become and remain eligible for grants, a critical financial lifeline in the industry.
“In a normal season, we present about 1,000 performances,” said Erez Ziv, the Managing Artistic Director at FRIGID New York. “It’s been zero since March.” FRIGID New York produces theater and serves as a home to artists throughout the city by leasing out its East Village performance venues, The Kraine Theater and UNDER St. Marks. During the shutdown, they pivoted to online productions by outfitting a studio with recording equipment and cameras. But Ziv says they’re scaling back these livestreamed performances as they prepare to take to the streets through Open Culture. These preparations include designing an all-in-one van with a built-in stage that can transport the logistical and technical equipment. “We’ll be able to just pull it in the morning, and within an hour we’ll have a stage with sound equipment set up and ready to go,” Ziv said. “The plan is to hit all five boroughs at some point.”
Open Culture can trace its origin to last April. Just weeks after COVID-19 lockdowns prohibited performance spaces from opening, the League of Independent Theater—a political advocacy organization that connects independent theaters with city politics—began pushing for an outdoor option for artists. They worked closely with council members Jimmy Van Bramer and Laurie Cumbo, who formally introduced the legislation in late August; the bill was eventually signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and enacted on January 10.
Applicants must have a permit 15 days before they plan to perform, and permits are awarded first come, first served—but the turnaround is unprecedented: “From the moment you get your application in, you will have your answer as to whether you’re allowed to perform within five days, which is a radical shift for the city—it’s huge,” said Aimee Todoroff, the managing director of the League. Applicants have over 150 street options to request: 18 in the Bronx, 55 in Brooklyn, 38 in Manhattan, 33 in Queens, and 14 in Staten Island.
Streets weren’t arbitrarily selected—they were nominated by artists in the neighborhood. Any street considered for approval had to be formally introduced by the district’s council member. And council members knew which streets to propose thanks to the grassroots efforts of the League: “We did a lot of work mobilizing people to request the specific streets that they wanted and to get them in touch with their council members,” Todoroff said. “[But] you can see based on the streets that were chosen that there is a bit of a disparity. There are areas that have a lot of very politically active theater people and artists . . . and then you have other areas that are traditionally overlooked.” Regardless, the League is hopeful that as Open Culture performances commence, communities will have the opportunity to continue nominating streets.
Todoroff also acknowledges that Open Culture will require significant creative adjustment: “You can’t just take one piece of art that was designed to exist in an indoor space and plop it outdoors . . . Dancing on asphalt is different than dancing on the floor.” Ziv, of FRIGID New York, has taken this into consideration too: “The stuff we usually do, traditional theater pieces, I don’t think they’ll work too well in this environment. It will be more music, comedy, variety—things . . . a little bit more loud than just a quiet theater piece.”
For some companies, like The Brick theater in Williamsburg, the repercussions of COVID-19 have left them too far behind to consider applying. “We are not planning to do any Open Culture events as we are barely able to stay open right now,” artistic director Theresa Buchheister said, adding that “the idea of planning street events is just not on our radar of importance, sadly.”
This doesn’t come as a surprise to Todoroff and the League, who acknowledge that the program won’t be the savior of New York’s performing arts. Regardless, they do expect many cultural institutions to apply and help return art to the city—a significant step toward recovery for industry workers and New Yorkers alike. “Access to art is a mental health issue,” Todoroff said. “As we look ahead to reopening . . . it’s how we’re going to be able to heal and celebrate and also grieve and connect.”
Open Culture performances are required to follow COVID-19 safety precautions and are currently limited to 50 attendees per performance. Though the initiative is currently set to end October 31, culture leaders are hopeful that elements of the program, especially the ease with which artists can acquire outdoor permits, will outlive the safety demands of the pandemic. If so, performers will be able to continue creating in the streets even as the COVID-19 crisis concludes and theater doors finally reopen.