When the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11, among the victims was the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. The group was founded around the time of the World Trade Center’s completion in 1972, with the intent to “humanize” the Financial District, in the words of its founder, Flory Barnett. There were performances in the sprawling plaza, installations in nearby bank storefronts, and, after a 1997 donation of raw space on the 91st and 92nd floors of the North Tower, the first of the council’s artists’ studios downtown.
The council lost nearly everything on that fateful day, including the life of one of its artists, Michael Richards. But like much of downtown after 9/11, it has made a rebound. There were some years of struggle and nomadism, with time spent at the World Financial Center and in DUMBO, but the group was also flooded with an outpouring of resources and goodwill that led to art happenings and new grant programs, bringing life and vibrancy to the occasionally dull and stuffy quarters downtown. The rise in residential development in the area made the need for cultural projects even greater.
Then another collapse hit, that of the financial sector, taking down the economy, philanthropy, and public funding with it. Now, with the downtown artistic community most in need, the council is struggling once again, though also finding opportunities where few existed in the headier days of years past.
It has fallen to Sam Miller to find a way forward for the council and the Lower Manhattan arts scene it has fostered over the years. Miller became executive director of the organization on June 30, having spent years running similar artists’ support organizations in New York and Massachusetts. He said that despite the challenges of the past and current climates, Lower Manhattan presents a rare opportunity.
“There are so many assets here,” Miller said. “Architectural assets, cultural organizations, public amenities.” The goal is figuring out how to get them all working together, whether it’s a relatively specialized concern like the Museum of Finance or a vacant storefront, with as little financial outlay as possible. “We need to build up the capacity for others to do this work,” Miller said. “It’s not only about working with partners, but building up partners to work with.”
While the council has had its operating budget reduced by 12.5 percent and staff reduced to 19, Miller said this has had a clarifying effect on the organization. “To me, the key thing over the next few years is strategic thinking about protecting and sustaining your work,” Miller said. The emphasis will be on bolstering current programming such as Lentspace, residencies that create site-specific installations, and Sitelines, a similar program at the River to River Festival for performance.
The council is in hot pursuit of roughly $28.6 million of unspent culture funding held by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Miller is also keeping his focus decidedly street-level, letting downtown’s competing bureaucracies figure out big-picture issues like where to put, or even whether to build, Frank Gehry’s Performing Arts Center.
The upside of the recession has meant the abatement of real estate pressures, which has created more opportunities for finding studio space, though such gains must also be carefully guarded. “I think it is critical, how the recovery can be managed in a way that’s beneficial to all the key stakeholders and does not become unbalanced again,” Miller said. “The value of embedding the arts and culture throughout the neighborhood, that value should be multiplied, not minimized.”