What the mayor giveth he also taketh away

Sometimes it's nice to live in a city where the mayor is rich and likes to give away his money. These are such times.

A bad economy and a gargantuan deficit in the city budget are once again squeezing the cultural life of New York City, one of its best features. After almost a decade of being flush, museums and opera houses, public theaters and botanical gardens are all suffering severe cutbacks in tourist traffic and funding -- public, corporate and fat-cat.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire who runs City Hall for $1 a year, is focused on the problem. For better and for worse. At City Hall, he is aggressively axing budgets, including money to cultural institutions by as much as 22% next year. But at home, in his swanky East Side townhouse decorated with paintings by Keith Haring and Jasper Johns, the mayor is quietly writing jumbo personal checks to groups all over town.

Recently, the local press reported that for the second year in a row Bloomberg anonymously donated $10 million that is going to be distributed to 162 small nonprofit cultural groups -- a music company in Brooklyn, an art school in Harlem and a ticket agency that helps city teenagers.

A few recipients, as large as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as small as the Brooklyn Children's Museum, are caught in the odd position of getting boosted by Bloomberg, the philanthropist, and bridled by Bloomberg, the bureaucrat.

Right now, the elite cultural leaders are preparing their public case against any cuts. They have hired a lobbyist and are working on a strategy for public hearings in the spring. But knowing this billionaire will not be mayor forever, they are also falling over themselves not to offend him. They don't dare carp about a man who has donated so generously that, for example, the Met's Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Arms and Armor Gallery is named for his daughters, and his company, Bloomberg LP, is a sponsor of arts institutions, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

"I respect what the mayor is doing with the cuts," said the Brooklyn Museum's director, Arnold L. Lehman. "It's a tough situation and we all know his heart is with us, and that he can't turn nothing into something."

But that is exactly Lehman's task these days.

The museum stands to lose one-quarter of its almost $7 million in city funding next year. Lehman and his board of directors will have to find other ways to pay security guards and hefty utilities bills for the Beaux Arts-era museum building in the middle of Brooklyn. They've already frozen hiring, cut the highest-paid employees' salaries by 5%, stopped showing so many films, and canceled an important exhibition planned for the fall. "I can't tell you what we're not doing in the fall," he said. "What would be the point?"

Established in the 19th century, the museum is a prime example of what could be called Itsy Bitsy Spider Syndrome, which all New York cultural institutions now endure. In the early 1990s, the city slashed by a third its contributions to these groups at the same time that their endowments were being gauged by recession. But then the sun came out during the go-go years of the late 1990s and the city increased funding, donations rose, endowments rebounded with the stock market, and just like the spider that went up the spout again, the museums and their budgets went up and up and up.

The Brooklyn Museum, however, never fully recovered. It did not go back to being open six days a week instead of five. It did not rehire 100 guards who were laid off. It did, however, raise a lot of money to rebuild its facade, to renovate its galleries and beef up its endowment.

But like the spider, it was not prepared to survive another downpour so soon. And now it must, and it is still $30 million away from its fund-raising goal while interest on its endowment is steadily declining.

"You learn a lot when your resources are very constricted," Lehman said. "You learn to be more efficient and to make do with less."

Pockets not so deep

Lean and tough are handy qualities in Brooklyn.

Despite having the second-largest collection of art in the United States, this great museum is still removed from the realm of socially prominent philanthropy that places in Manhattan like the Met and MOMA and Lincoln Center regularly lap up. Brooklyn just doesn't have rich people with names like Tisch and Lauder and Kravis and, frankly, even Bloomberg, begging to donate. And while Brooklyn's board chairman is named Robert Rubin and is highly regarded in the financial world, he is not the Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary who is sort of like the fifth Beatle in New York social circles. No, this Robert Rubin is an amicable banker who believes in the virtues of Brooklyn and civic duty.

"We don't have the same kind of pull on large pockets like many of our colleagues in Manhattan," Lehman confessed. "We've seen small contributions increase lately. But how many of those add up to replace a $25,000 or $50,000 corporate gift that was eliminated?"

Of course, the news is bad around the country. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced in December it was shelving plans for its much publicized new building by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas because it was having trouble raising the $200 million to $300 million the project would cost.

In New York, art and culture are essential to the city's character, a crowd magnet and main attraction to a recently devastated city where every other waiter seems to be a struggling artist or opera singer. And so the problems of even less glamorous institutions like the Brooklyn Museum adversely impact the whole borough.

No one understands this better than the mayor, insists Kate Levin, his cultural affairs commissioner. "Throughout his term he has helped various institutions in fund-raising and encouraged public art in a number of places," Levin said, pointing out that it was Bloomberg's idea to corral the Whitney Museum into managing an exhibit in City Hall and to get MOMA to hang paintings in Gracie Mansion.

Still, Bloomberg has made it known that he is more sympathetic to the problems of, say, the sanitation department than the powerful New York museums and cultural centers, which may be able to find private donors to make up their shortfalls.

"This mayor knows that it is a false dichotomy to say, 'How can you think about laying off police to save money to feed opera singers?' " Levin says. "He knows both are essential to this city." But considering the city's projected $6-billion deficit next year, she adds, "it's impossible to line up sacred cows. Everyone has to take a hit."

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