Volume 18 • Issue 36 | January 20 - 26, 2006

Downtown arts groups make their case for L.M.D.C. dough

By Ronda Kaysen

When Michael Dorf heard that $35 million was available for cultural organizations Downtown, he jumped in line with more than 100 other cultural groups for a chance for the money.

The founder of the Knitting Factory in Tribeca penned an application for a $2.5 million grant to build a 30,000 sq. ft. performance space and cafe Downtown called the Art Exchange. He describes his creation — at the moment little more than a proposal — as Carnegie Hall Downtown with a great wine list.

“They better give it to me because we are the most worthwhile of all,” said Dorf in a telephone interview. Art Exchange, which would have a 900-seat theater and a 250-seat club, currently has no home, although Dorf is considering a site in the South Street Seaport and another on Wall Street.

Dorf is one of more than 100 organizations that applied by the Dec. 22 deadline for $35 million in cultural enhancement grants from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the agency steering the World Trade Center redevelopment.

L.M.D.C. announced the grants, available to programs below Houston St., last November, making good on a promise to support culture in Lower Manhattan. The agency expects to announce the first round of winners in the spring.

For Downtown arts organizations that have waited in vain for the past four and a half years for L.M.D.C. money, the November announcement was welcome news.

“Part of the pressure on L.M.D.C. is to acknowledge that there are Downtown organizations that have the support that they should have,” said Lisa Ecklund-Flores, director and co-founder of Church Street School for Music and Art, the only non-profit community music school in Lower Manhattan.

Ecklund-Flores requested $500,000 for a plan to expand her school — which is actually on Warren St. — into an adjacent building. The expansion would triple the size of the 2,900 sq. ft. school.

Church Street’s enrollment dropped by 75 percent after the disaster. Now, four and a half years later, the school has 450 students and is near capacity, despite an expansion to the second floor completed last January. “The only silver lining in all this is that we came out the other side with even stronger student enrollment.”

Ecklund-Flores applied for a $50,000 grant from L.M.D.C. for the first expansion, but was denied. She ended up dipping into the school’s operating budget to cover the costs.

She hopes this time L.M.D.C. will turn its attention to locally grown organizations. “There’s got to be something that acknowledges the people that hung on,” she said.

Competition for the funds is stiff. Major institutions are lining up for the money, including New York City Opera, which launched a school program at the High School of Economics and Finance last year. The opera company applied for $125,000 to expand its program, which provides artist residencies in the Trinity St. school. “We want [the students] to know that the arts is a career available to them,” said Talena Mara, director of education for City Opera. The teachers “are trying to expand their horizons so they don’t think the only thing out there is to be a stockbroker.”

City Opera famously applied for a spot in the Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center that Frank Gehry is supposed to design, but didn’t make the cut. “There are a lot of great opportunities,” said Mara. “That one we’ve put behind us now.”

Community Board 1 has long advocated bringing art and culture to this increasingly residential neighborhood. Last month, the board threw its weight behind City Opera’s application, along with a handful of other applicants, including the Church Street School; Manhattan Youth, a non-profit after-school and summer program for children that is building a new community center on Warren St.; the Poets House, a Soho-based poetry center that is moving to a new 10,000 sq. ft. facility in Battery Park City on Murray St.; and the River Project, a marine science center that is planning to build a temporary aquarium in Hudson River Park.

“All the cultural organizations that we supported are very worthwhile,” said Harold Reed, chairperson of the board’s Arts and Entertainment Committee. “The bottom line is that we must have more culture Downtown… the arts act as an economic engine.”

The board also requested that Reed be appointed to the L.M.D.C. grant review board.

Two arts organizations that lost their homes in the Trade Center Disaster —the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which was in the Trade Center and 3-Legged Dog, which was in the severely damaged Fiterman Hall on West Broadway—both also applied for funding.

Three-Legged Dog, a nonprofit performing arts group, is in the midst of building a $4.6 million gallery and performance space on Greenwich St., three blocks south of the Trade Center site. The first phase—a 6,000-square-foot, 280-seat theater and rehearsal space—will open next month.

The center’s new home is in the ground floor of a Metropolitan Transportation Authority-owned parking garage that L.M.D.C. would like to see razed as part of a Greenwich Street South revitalization effort.

Instead of requesting capital funds from the agency that would like to demolish his building, executive director Kevin Cunningham requested $2.5 million for operating and recovery funds. “We are still trying to dig our way out after 9/11,” said Cunningham, who hopes to open the 2,200 sq. ft. gallery in April. (The Greenwich Street South plans are in preliminary stages and the M.T.A. insists it has no plans to sell its building to the city.)

Cunningham, like all of the applicants Downtown Express spoke with for this story, is confident his organization will stand out from the crowd. “They say that they want to help us and I believe them and I hope they do quickly because we’re ready to open soon,” he said.



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