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OPINION: In New York, Performance Must Be Everywhere

When cars are banished, culture can flourish, as this Time Lapse Dance performance on the Upper West Side shows. File photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Justin Krebs
Justin Krebs
Justin Krebs

In the darkest days of the pandemic last spring, the eruptions of clanging, singing and cheering from fire escapes, stoops, windows and rooftops each evening at 7 p.m. were an essential burst of vibrancy and connection. As the weather improved and the emergency rooms slowed, neighbors closed streets for informal outdoor gatherings and musicians took perches on stoops for impromptu performances. In late October, outside early voting centers, singers and spontaneous brass bands showed up to entertain the long lines and celebrate our hope for democracy; and of course, after the news networks called the election for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, there was dancing in the streets.

New Yorkers want — and need — to make noise, to be heard, to feel a connection to each other. We want to find sparks of joy and laughter through tough times. Community embrace, social capital and a good old-fashion catharsis.

And all of that is what the arts — both in a pandemic and in "normal" times — offers our society and our city. During a year of social distancing, the loss of most live performance is a true tragedy — and the resurrection of it spontaneously and haphazardly in the public spaces we can seize for it has been a welcome blessing.

Now, the city is more intentionally supporting outdoor, public performances — a welcome leap for our performers, arts professionals and our communities. It's a radical reimagining of both our streets and our arts to explicitly cede public space at low permit fees for outdoor performances. And it's a model that should last well beyond the pandemic.

The city's Open Culture program is turning more patches of public space into performance spots — just as the city has expanded outdoor dining, curbside retail, outdoor schooling, summer streets, play streets and more. Furthermore, it's doing so in a way that will allow artists and arts organizations to generate revenue through ticket sales, as a modest fee for the permits — giving performers the rare and much-needed chance to earn during this pandemic.

As the co-founder and long-time board chair of The Tank — a multi-disciplinary performance space for emerging artists, dedicated to removing financial barriers to creating and presenting and consuming new work in New York — I am a huge enthusiast for this move. This way of reimagining our public space and investing in our public sphere is the kind of big, bold thinking the pandemic has made possible — and is what we need not just in moments of acute crisis, but even when we're on more solid footing.

The program's success is to be seen — and arts and culture organizations, who are serving as the bridge between the city and artists, have the great responsibility to be the connector in this initiative. We need to not only generate some much-needed revenue for the organizations, but also live up to the duty to make sure that independent artists — hard-hit by the pandemic with little to no aid this year — are compensated and benefit from this public-private partnership. After all, these organizations are nothing without the artists they commit to supporting.

I believe it can work — if nothing else, I am made a believer by the energy of our legions of artists already inquiring where to sign up. Dancers, comedians, storytellers, puppeteers, monologists and musicians all are eager for a few feet of asphalt to ply their trade — and have the chance to be compensated at the same time.

They are hungry to perform, just as many of us are hungry to consume performances.

I've seen how our community of artists have struggled both creatively and economically this year. Live performances — along with restaurants and nightlife — have faced some of the most complete devastations of their industries and need special attention as we emerge into a new season if we're to help them thrive again.

And it's not just asking how the city helps the arts; let's be clear, the arts are critical to helping the city. They are a huge driver of our city's economy, as well as an enormous influence on the shape of our city's soul. Getting stages open again and seats filled will be critical for the city's recovery; and getting performers in pocket parks and street corners will be critical to bringing our main streets and community spaces back to life.

I remember dates at concerts and movies in parks and the thrill of sharing our city with so many folks under the stars. A joy of parenting young kids was pausing with my toddlers to enjoy a surprise guitarist in front of our local playground. I look forward to June 21, the day that Make Music New York takes over street corners with hundreds of pop-up performances, and hope it returns from last year's hiatus.

So here's my secret hope: Once we open the streets to culture, we never go back. Yes, of course I want to re-open The Tank — and every venue from BAM to Broadway, from the Apollo uptown to Puppetworks up the block. I want our city marketing the reopening of live performance, I want schools taking student groups to shows, I want ticket incentives so good that all New Yorkers, not just the privileged few, can enjoy a live show — something that we can work on year-round, to make art accessible to all. And, yes, I even want our tourists coming back.

But even as venues reopen, I want arts and culture to continue to live outside. I want the Parks Department and the Department of Transportation and every other agency that controls our streets, sidewalks and public spaces to hold on to some of that real estate for the arts. Expanding our stages will help more artists, will introduce more folks to live performance, will revitalize more neighborhoods, will boost more local businesses that can partner with the performances, and will bring more joy.

It will remind us that we, New Yorkers, live outside and live out loud.

Let's get and keep our culture out in the open — and let's all experience music, laughter and dancing in the streets.

Justin Krebs is the co-founder of The Tank, a performance venue, and a candidate for City Council in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @justinmkrebs. Streetsblog covered his campaign here.

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