Susan B. Rothschild
When people ask what I do for a living, I always answer by saying I have
one of the best jobs in the City. Since 1995, I have had the privilege
of overseeing the City’s relationship with the 34 designated City-owned
cultural institutions informally known as the Cultural Institutions Group
or CIG. Like most New Yorkers, I am in awe of the world-famous collections
housed at places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and by landmarks
such as the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden. I’m inspired
by the extraordinary array of music, dance and drama presented at New
York venues such as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
The thing that intrigues me most about my job is the opportunity to discover
the lesser-known ways in which CIG serves the public. A few months back,
I started to think more in detail about the subject when I was asked to
assist the American Museum of Natural History in buying a large number
of computer chips and RAM. When I inquired about the purpose of this purchase,
I learned that Dr. Ward Wheeler, one of the Museum’s scientists, would
be using these items to build a parallel computing cluster capable of
processing thousands of pairs of DNA sequences. Dr. Wheeler has a major
grant from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration to use these
DNA sequences to construct evolutionary trees. However, the computational
power necessary to carry out this research simply does not currently exist.
Accordingly, Dr. Wheeler has taught himself how to program so that he
can custom design the required software. Who would have thought that a
member of our cultural community would assist NASA in the search for life
in outer space, and in doing so, would develop one of the world’s most
During my years in City government, I have been continually amazed to
discover that no matter what the priorities of any given administration
there are programs presented by the cultural community which serve that
priority. For example, you may have read in the Summer 1999 issue of FYI
that the Staten Island Botanical Garden (SIBG) recently opened a Chinese
Scholar’s Garden, the only one of its kind to date in North America. But
how many of us know that the Garden is also a leader in the area of reducing
crime and in addressing the needs of at-risk youth? For over seven years,
SIBG has provided an alternative sentencing program for the New York City
Department of Probation, thereby helping to reduce the recidivism rate
of those participating. Additionally, the Garden recently received first
place from the New York State Department of Labor for its Green Team program.
The program was designed to provide at-risk youth with training in recycling,
horticulture and grounds maintenance. In its first year, 80 percent of
the participants graduated and were successfully placed in "green"
In the area of health, we can once again look to the American Museum
of Natural History and its recent exhibit Epidemic! The World of Infectious
Diseases. As part of its outreach effort for the exhibition, the Museum
worked in collaboration with the City’s Department of Health, the Red
Cross and a variety of hospitals and local health organizations to increase
public knowledge about how infectious diseases are contracted, prevented,
and medically treated. Meanwhile, in a partnership with the National Health
Sciences Consortium, the New York Hall of Science has just opened its
new exhibit The Changing Face of Women’s Health. The project includes
extensive workshops and educational guides to assist teachers in using
the exhibit to educate their junior high students about this important
health topic. In regard to international health issues, the Wildlife Conservation
Society was recently commended by the People’s Republic of China for its
work in training Chinese teachers. According to the PRC, the Society’s
efforts have led to a significant increase in public awareness in China
about the threat to endangered species by the use of these animals in
In the area of education, New Yorkers of all ages have the opportunity
participate in the extensive educational programming offered by CIG and
others in the cultural community. Most people probably don’t know the
extent to which these programs are often tailored to meet the needs of
particular communities, or to assist in the learning of other parts of
the curriculum. Behind the Screen, the core exhibition at the American
Museum of the Moving Image, incorporates curricula in science and math.
For years, the Museum has also offered Screening America, a curriculum-based
program that uses film and television materials ranging from I Love
Lucy to Twelve Angry Men to assist in the teaching of social
studies and English as a second language for both children and adults.
Another member of CIG, the Queens Botanical Garden, includes the Association
for Children with Retarded Mental Development as one of the many groups
helped by its on-site horticultural therapy programs.
Looking now at community development, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum
is seeking to develop a partnership with neighborhood-based community
organizations and local businesses for the purpose of creating a Kids’
Zone, a broad-based educational haven for children and youth living in
Crown Heights and other parts of Brooklyn. The Museum is also part of
a collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Botanic
Garden and other Brooklyn-based cultural institutions in presenting the
Brooklyn Cultural Adventures Program, a summer day camp experience for
children ages 10 to 12.
The above examples are mentioned because these are the cultural organizations
I know the best. It goes without saying that equally compelling examples
of community service can be found among other members of the cultural
community. The Bronx Council on the Arts, together with its affiliate
the BCA Local Development Corporation, has developed a nationally recognized
job training initiative in art handling for the long term unemployed.
They are now working with the Department of Cultural Affairs to develop
a similar program in the area of book arts for homeless youth. Returning
again to CIG, the Bronx Museum of the Arts will soon celebrate the 30th
anniversary of Artists in the Marketplace. The Marketplace provides emerging
artists with intensive training in the business of the arts (marketing,
grant writing, tax and other legal issues, the role of the art critic,
public art commissions and museum policies).
Many in the cultural community are cautious about promoting the myriad
number of ways in which arts organizations go beyond their primary mission.
We are understandably concerned about taking attention away from what
is their fundamental purpose, namely, the presentation of, and educating
the public about, works of art. I would suggest that we need not be so
reticent about letting the public, elected officials and private funders
know the full dimension of what the arts contribute to society. It is
no accident that New York City leads the way in the area of arts-related
industries such as fashion, media, publishing, design, art galleries and
auction houses. New York also serves as an example for so many businesses
that depend on high level, creative thinking. In their groundbreaking
study Reinventing New York: Competing in the Next Century’s Global
Economy, Hugh O’Neill and Mitchell Moss of New York University argue
that the reason so many Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in New
York is because of the City’s concentration of intellectual capital. I
know I am biased on this point, but I would urge that the single most
important factor in fostering this environment is New York City’s incredibly
rich and diverse array of cultural resources.
Art is the expression of the creative potential of the human psyche.
It is creative essence that enables our cultural organizations to set
the stage for intellectual inquiry in other areas, and to provide answers
for difficult human issues that resist solutions by more traditional means.
All of us involved in the cultural community should take great pride.
Susan B. Rothschild is the Assistant Commissioner for Cultural Institutions at the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.
MFA’s Expansion Equation
Clear the aisles everyone. Materials for the Arts (MFA), the materials
donation and reuse program of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs
(DCA), has moved to a new location. We’ve expanded for the new millennium!
At the end of March, MFA expanded their space. They’ve moved to the west
side of the Chelsea Market. Visitors can still enter at 75th Street and
9th Avenue. The new space is 20,000 square feet—twice the size of the
former warehouse. More staff members and new equipment, in addition to
increased storage capabilities, will create a more efficient operation.
The design of the new warehouse includes many exciting features. There
is one freight elevator solely for incoming donations, two freight elevators
for outgoing transactions, and a separate passenger elevator. The administrative
improvements include a separate conference room, upgraded computer systems,
e-mail, a website, and a new telephone system with voicemail.
The immediate effects of the expansion will be threefold: an increased
number of shopping appointments for recipients; a larger number of donations
accepted and processed; and an increased amount of reusable goods diverted
from the waste stream, helping to make the environment a little "greener."
Everyone benefits from this expansion: the arts, the environment and the
multitude of donors throughout the New York City metro area.
MFA’s history is as unusual as the organization itself. Materials for
the Arts began in 1977 with a desk at DCA. Then, in 1980, the Institute
for Contemporary Arts / PS 1, in Long Island City, donated a 3,500 square
foot space in their basement for use as a warehouse. In 1989, the City
recognized the need for more space and leased MFA’s current space, a new
warehouse triple the size. However, funds were needed to hire more staff
and operate the larger facility. In 1990, efforts to provide a forum for
reuse and waste reduction in New York City led to a partnership between
DCA and the Department of Sanitation (DOS). With financial support from
DOS’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, MFA was able to
fully staff and to operate the new facility.
In 1997, MFA forged yet another partnership—this time with the Board
of Education through Project ARTS (Arts Restoration Throughout the Schools).
This initiative of the school’s Chancellor, with assistance from the City,
was designed to restore arts education to the public schools. Teachers
participating in Project ARTS have access to materials essential for integrating
the arts into the core curriculum.
This collaboration between the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Department
of Sanitation, and the Board of Education, as well as private funders,
has allowed Materials for the Arts to expand its program. In order to
serve the 1,500 arts and cultural programs and the 1,100 public schools
even more efficiently, another physical expansion had to happen. So MFA’s
staff is ready to pack up the boxes and load up the moving trucks in preparation
for what will be a spectacular new warehouse filled with wonderful donations
for all of our 2,600 recipient groups to enjoy!
MaryEllen Etienne is the Direct Donations and Outreach Coordinator
at Materials for the Arts. For additional information about MFA, call
The information contained in the above article is current as of its March 2000 publication date. Please be advised that this information may be out of date.