Earlier this month, the City of New Orleans reorganized the budget and funding for its convention and visitors’ bureau, New Orleans & Company (NOCO), combining the New Orleans Tourism & Marketing Corporation’s (NOTMC) efforts with NOCO’s to create economies of scale and to divert money into a separate fund. The $5.7 million budget combination savings was earmarked for an organization that will change from a pure marketing agency for the city’s tourism industry to a fund that supports New Orleans’ “cultural economy and culture-bearers.” The organization’s name would become the “New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund.” At press time, there’s been no defined plan for the uses and disbursement of funds, and it still has to be voted on by the City Council.
The Ella Project has done much research and advocacy on funding cultural cities throughout the US. Here are their recommendations on the $3.9 million fund, based on years of research and interaction with city governments across the US:
The movement to change the mission of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation into the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund presents a major opportunity for the City government to finally invest in culture at an adequate level and develop programs and systems that will help our culture thrive over the long term.
Of the $5.7 million, $1.8 in 2020 was reserved for remaining responsibilities of the NOTMC, including cash payments to Essence and Super Bowl Hosting Committee [yes, we pay Essence to have its event in New Orleans], leaving $3.9 million.
That said, while $3.9 million represents a major jump in budgetary dollars, it’s not a panacea.
New Orleans’ long-term structural problems of housing, education, and inequity are not solved by $3.9 million, and, even properly managed, the money spends quickly at a municipal level. However, by focusing directly on existing problems where funds and support can make a difference and by not duplicating existing services, this new effort can be extremely impactful.
The Ella Project has been engaged for many years in cultural advocacy and policy engagement, including identifying best practices for supporting and funding local culture. Our fundamental and overarching goal is to provide resources for the continuity of a self-empowered, self-determined New Orleans culture. Our advocacy work has included bringing policy experts to New Orleans to meet with our mayoral candidates in 2017 (including candidate LaToya Cantrell), hosting a mayoral forum on culture, and leading fact-finding missions with representatives from the New Orleans City Council and Mayor’s Office, including visits to similarly situated cities ( e.g. San Francisco and Seattle) to engage with thought leaders around challenges and opportunities in balancing the act of promoting cultural tourism with reasonable regulation that highlights forward thinking and progressive ideas in municipal cultural policy. With this history in mind, here are areas where the Cultural Fund can make the largest impact.
This funding presents opportunities to increase the City government’s capacity by adding a small number of positions with dedicated cultural portfolios. There has been ongoing discussion around creating a “Nightlife and Cultural Advocate” staff position. We recommend providing funding for a full-time Nightlife and Cultural Advocate position, housed in the Office of Cultural Economy, along with funds for a designated police unit for the nightlife and cultural sectors.
The Nightlife and Cultural Advocate works in City government and serves as a bridge between the music clubs, bars, restaurants, nighttime festivals and the government. It is a simple fact that most of the government and regulatory agencies close up shop at 6:00 p.m., meaning that if conflicts arise at 11:00 p.m., NOPD is the only city agency that answers the phone. A Nightlife and Cultural Advocate can be on the ground during “the other 9 to 5” to address codes and compliance. This person can also promote the nightlife and cultural economies within government and business leagues, while advocating for the social importance of a thriving nightlife that is a net positive, not a potential nuisance needing to be controlled. They can also work with nightlife businesses pro-actively to educate and encourage them to operate successful, sustainable businesses that promote strong communities and neighborhoods.
By insuring public safety, policing plays a primary role in a thriving nightlife. While the NOPD is world- renowned for handling big events and crowd control, they are not always adequately prepared for calls from angry neighbors, businesses or street performers. New Orleans municipal codes and regulations are often arcane and contradictory, which leads to inconsistencies in interpretation and enforcement. The City’s many enforcement agencies are operating under different handbooks. Expecting a patrol officer to be well-versed in these contradictory regulations, or to make an on-the-spot judgment of where the line falls between First Amendment-protected freedom of expression, and engaging in commercial activity, is unrealistic and frankly, unfair to the patrol officer.
What has worked in other cities is the establishment of a dedicated police unit for the nightlife and cultural sectors. This unit is well-versed in municipal codes, works pro-actively with businesses and street performers, while reviewing 311 calls from neighbors to anticipate concerns before they turn into big problems. This unit can work closely with the Nightlife and Cultural Advocate to promote a police culture heavy on education and information, and light on arrests. The 2019 arrests of several performers on Frenchmen Street was the culmination of many, slow moving issues that ultimately reached a boiling point, where NOPD overstepped their bounds. If dedicated Nightlife and Cultural officers were on the scene from the outset, the chances of conflicts escalating to a level that was bad for musicians, businesses, and the City as a whole would have been significantly mitigated. That alone is worth this investment.
New Orleans municipal arts grants (currently at $425,000 annually), are $1.5 to $2 million behind cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville, and over $10 million behind Austin. We all know a major funding increase is necessary, and was recommended by Mayor Cantrell’s transition team. Most of the recent talk has been around the Cultural Fund supporting “cultural bearers.” The Arts Council is already administering the City’s municipal arts grants through its More Joy and organizational grants. While significantly underfunded, More Joy has focused exclusively on funding the Mardi Gras Indian and street parading traditions.
The Arts Council’s grant-making process is strong, open, based on peer review, and not beholden to the political process. The staff, software, and systems are in place to administer additional funds, and we recommend exploring contracting with the Arts Council as the first step. This could be done using a block grant system where the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund approves large grants to the Arts Council for re-granting, meaning that NOTCF does not have to hire new staff, devise new systems, and purchase new software. There can also be caveats placed on the Arts Council to make sure the process is as inclusive and accessible as possible.
Regardless of the agency overseeing the funding distributions, individual grants should be targeted to specific opportunities for career growth and to enhance the cultural fabric of New Orleans. To maximize this investment, contracts with individual artists should be conditional on the artists growing through professional development training on grant management and best business practices from an independent entity.
SUPPORTING A THRIVING CULTURAL ECOSYSTEM
Grants alone cannot make the kind of impact that is transformational across the entire cultural ecosystem. Deliberate, thoughtful and meaningful strategies have to be developed for purposes of promoting cultural continuity. Real work has to be done to make New Orleans a healthier, more sustainable place for artists and culture bearers to continue to live and work. With Louisiana’s weak social safety net, artist-services organizations have developed strong programs to address specific needs of our cultural community.
There are many examples of organizations doing critical work to serve the interests of our artist population. The New Orleans Musicians Clinic and Assistance Foundation provides free healthcare to culture bearers; the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation offers professional development and networking opportunities via its Sync-Up Program; Roots of Music educates the next generation of players in the brass tradition; and the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council supports the continuity of the masking tradition. We at The Ella Project provide pro bono legal assistance for artists, musicians, culture bearers and grass roots nonprofits, along with a platform for cultural advocacy and policy engagement and development that favors a thriving creative sector and cultural ecosystem.
There are a myriad of arts education organizations that fill the arts education gap in the public schools. Recognizing and supporting the vital role of these artist-service organizations is paramount to making transformational impact across the entire cultural ecosystem.
Done correctly, the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund can position New Orleans culture bearers to continue to develop and share their traditions and heritage in a way that distinguishes New Orleans while developing our strengths as a vibrant, multicultural hub, which will pay dividends for generations.
Please feel free to contact The Ella Project, 421 Frenchmen, Ste 200 New Orleans, LA, 70116, @TheEllaProject, 504-250-0429 and www.EllaNola.org.