Wednesday, July 31, 2013

NYC mayoral candidates interviewed on education and arts policies

WNYC's Leonard Lopate (left) and Kurt Andersen, moderators
(c)2013, Eva Yaa Asantewaa 
Perhaps a month ago, I wondered if any of the current candidates for Mayor of the City of New York had positions on arts policy. As a supporter of Bill de Blasio, a progressive Democrat, I checked his Web site first and then looked at a few others. I didn't find anything. So, I got in touch with Dance/NYC Executive Director Lane Harwell. Harwell said, Hang on: There's a forum in the works.

And now, in no special order, a list of things I learned from last night's Mayoral Candidates forum on The Future of Education, Arts and Culture in New York City at Teachers College, Columbia University:

1. Most mayoral candidates, some of whom have backgrounds related to the educational system, seem on safer, firmer ground when the discussion is posited as "the future of education including the role of the arts in education," not "the future of arts and artists in New York." Which might be why, this event--billed as a forum on the arts when I first learned of it--became one largely addressing arts in our schools.

Lopate and Andersen
(c)2013, Eva Yaa Asantewaa 
2. Leonard Lopate (The Leonard Lopate Show) and Kurt Andersen (Studio 360) possess Herculean stamina and, in the case of Lopate, the sting of a wasp. Mindful of how someone I know always refers to the radio host as "boring," I was amused to hear Lopate ask provocative (and provoking) zingers and give these politicians and wannabes a verbal smack when he didn't care for their replies. Let's get Lopate to follow these guys around and zap 'em each time they equivocate--which should keep him busy.

City Council President Christine Quinn
(c)2013, Eva Yaa Asantewaa
3. The speed-dating format featured about fifteen minutes with each candidate being grilled by moderators but taking no questions from the audience. Surprisingly, these quick takes provided valuable impressions of each of these men and women, if not in-depth, detailed information about their potential arts policies. Democratic front-runner Christine Quinn, for instance, offered a snapshot of her notoriously aggressive personality by being the only person to employ sports lingo, and weirdly so--"We want to put arts on the offensive in the budget"--and use the expression "when I am Mayor," while managing to evade commitment to any specific solutions short of extending the school day by a couple of hours to add literacy-through-arts programming. Giuliani-backed Joe Lhota not only turned on his reputed charm and humor but also parted company with his former boss, criticizing how Giuliani's administration sidelined arts education. All went nicely until Lopate brought up Lhota's role in the Chris Ofili/Brooklyn Museum incident. "I learned a lot," said Lhota. "I made a mistake."
Staten Island's Rev. Erick Salgado
(c)2013, Eva Yaa Asantewaa
4. Fringe candidates you never heard of might not have a chance in hell, but they sometimes bring information and perspectives that broaden the discussion in a useful way. It fell to an actual working artist--poet and painter Abiodun Laurel-Smith, aka Abiodun Oladewa, Abbey or Smithie--to remind the moderators that artists don't necessarily exist just to entertain or even to educate in any kind of a socially-approved way. "You have to go to the people and find what the real art is," said the Oxford graduate. "Fine artists have an edge," and what they do will not always align with politicians' interests. CUNY professor and Green Party candidate Anthony Gronowicz--one of the few speakers to insist on the provision of more spaces in which artists can do their work--also noted the effect of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy on students from communities of color. After encounters with the police, "my students come to class shattered," he said. "How can they paint? How can they write?"

George McDonald, 
Founder and President of The Doe Fund
(c)2013, Eva Yaa Asantewaa
5. Then again, not every also-ran-to-be brought experiences and insights of value. George McDonald, founder and president of The Doe Fund--an organization serving the homeless, the formerly incarcerated and people with substance abuse histories--got off on the wrong foot with both moderators and audience by strangely rambling on about houses he owns. Andersen finally cut him off: "Congratulations on owning all this fantastic real estate on Long Island." Matters did not improve as McDonald swiftly went on to hail Bloomberg as an improvement over Giuliani, claiming that Bloomberg's willingness to hold meetings with Black people made New York a less racist place. McDonald put forth his idea for solving the trouble that both the arts and education face in our times: "New York City employees must pay for their health insurance." The topic of public school test scores brought to mind a family member's situation: "Not all students test well," he said. "My grandson, for instance." Andersen could not ignore this transgression, dryly replying, "You've just embarrassed your grandson." Clueless but ever optimistic, McDonald lobbied for our votes--or, at least, our willingness to tap our Republican friends--and ended with a cheery, "I'm conservative with your money and liberal with your rights!"

The Rev. Erick Salgado argued for community-based nonprofits having access to school buildings after hours. This made me wonder if he was talking about churches utilizing space in schools--a controversy--but, as noted before, the audience could ask no questions. Salgado went on to sidestep the topic of arts in education, finally saying he supports the idea of it. Clearly, though, he has no ideas for the integration of the arts and education but seems laser-focused on charter schools and tax breaks for parents who utilize them. John Catsimatidis, the Gristedes and Red Apple mogul, passionately took on the current administration's preoccupation with "bike lanes and building hills on Governors Island." Although he agreed with Andersen's suggestion that every school should have a full-time arts teacher, his main solution to the education dilemma seemed to concede to failure: Why must every student go through an academic program?  Let's offer them trade schools, instead, as a pathway to the middle class. Citing his immigrant family's experience, he said, "Let's teach people how to earn a living. You know what people are looking for? They're looking for hope. I made it, and you can make it, too."

Bill de Blasio, NYC Public Advocate
(c)2013, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

Joe Lhota, ex-MTA chair/CEO
(c)2013, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

6. Bill de Blasio needs someone to light a fire under his ass. Seriously. I can understand that he's being a realist and reasonable about the looming challenge the next mayor will face as he or she simultaneously deals with renegotiating multiple union contracts. Committing to an ambitious increase in arts funding across all five boroughs--such as promoted by One Percent for Culture, a co-presenter of this forum--might be foolhardy, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't come to an event like this prepared for the excellent opportunity to rev people up about why this issue matters to you, what you value and hold dear, what you're willing to fight for. Instead, de Blasio argued that he did not want to pander to us. Okay, no pandering, but Bill, give us something! Maybe the media largely ignore his campaign because--short of the noble, if quickly forgettable, act of getting arrested at a protest while other candidates slinked away--there's no real excitement there. But to give my favored candidate a break, at least he knows how to treat family. Referring to public speaking and noting his son Dante's presence in the front row, he took a moment to laud the teenager's talents as a speaker. Maybe Dante should run for mayor.

John Liu, Comptroller of the City of New York
Above and below (c)2013, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

7. Politics is a far nerdier profession than I'd ever imagined. Bill Thompson--another basically cautious soul--revealed that, as a child, he'd had "a love affair with dinosaurs." Quinn, quickly rounding on the moderators, defended the right of science to be considered culture: "Ask the Museum of Natural History!" John Liu, after critiquing the Board of Education's reliance on expensive consultants, and after laying out boilerplate, sounds-good stuff about nurturing talent in small community groups and immigrant neighborhoods--joked that he's "an actuary--that's an accountant minus the personality." The only certified comic on hand--Randy Credico--might consider updating his shtick. A Louis Armstrong impression in 2013? Really?
Jack Hidary, Founder and Chairman of Samba Energy
(c)2013, Eva Yaa Asantewaa
8. "Twenty years ago, I studied art and painting in this building," said Democrat Jack Hidary, an energy and Internet entrepreneur. He spoke those words with pride and a refreshing sense of living connection to the issue on the table. He ticked off benefits of the arts: economic development, revival of neighborhoods, increased tourism, investment in students and in teachers. Through a public-private partnership, he said, the 1% target is achievable. He vowed to get there and to forge partnerships between arts institutions and the 300 New York City schools that do not have these valuable links. He spoke of creating shared collaborative space for artists in neighborhoods of all five boroughs. Citing the dramatic drop in arts in education funding from $65 per student (ten years ago) to the current $2 per student, he argued that he would seek restoration of that money over a period of two years.

"Art," he said, "is core and part and parcel" of the educational experience. It should not be relegated to after-school activities. He exhorted New York to "teach for the real world, not the test," a world of industries seeking innovative people. "Get the kids participating in teams and on real projects," he said. "We're not in the 18th Century anymore. We're in a century that values teamwork, problem solving and creativity."

Sal Albanese, former City Council member
(c)2013, Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Other candidates appearing--or not:

Sal Albanese, former City Council member: Uses words like "synergy" and "holistic." Does not advocate an art tax but thinks that One Percent for Culture's call for an increase in city arts spending to a full 1% of the budget "makes a lot of sense." He would work in concert with the unions to modernize the city's pension plan--"a clunker"--along the lines of the Toronto system. He would partner with insurance companies to bring down healthcare costs. He is not against tax breaks for arts organizations. His campaign does not accept money from developers, lobbyists or anyone doing business with the city. He wants to set up pediatric wellness centers--one in each borough--to deal with the root causes of many issues our children face.

Ceceilia Berkowitz, accountant and academic: last in the forum lineup, and the less said, the better about her bizarre presentation in front of two probably exhausted moderators and a nearly-empty hall

Hilda Broady-Fernandez: not present

Adolfo Carrión, former Bronx Borough President (2001-2009) and Deputy Assistant and Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs: Arrived as the forum progressed, sat in the front row for a short while, then got up and left.

Neil Grimaldi, Assistant District Attorney (Bronx County) and Special Narcotics Prosecutor, background in high school and grammar school teaching: not present

Walter Iwachiw, registered nurse: not present

James McMillan, famed Rent Is Too Damn High Party candidate and Viet Nam vet: not present

Carl Person, attorney: not present

And last, certainly not least...

Anthony Weiner: No, neither Weiner nor his alter ego, Carlos Danger, had time for this forum. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd ("Quit is the Way to Roll," July 31) explained the whereabouts of the embattled warrior and most of the media, too.
At an event Tuesday evening in Times Square with advocates for New Yorkers with disabilities, the 48-year-old seemed tired, slight and young as he was thronged by the fierce Hydra-headed press beast. He looked as if he were running on raw will.
He apologized for being late, saying something about the “time-space continuum.”
Weiner tried to focus on the issues at hand, like wheelchair-accessible cabs. The auditorium was mostly empty, except for reporters following Weiner to see if he was going to drop out or admit that he had sexted recently.

Forum co-presenters:

One Percent for Culture

Teachers College, Columbia University

Young Audiences New York

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