Bite the Big Apple – Epilogue – My Five Days in New York

I have been aware of Bite the Big Apple (BtBA) for some years and I always were intrigued by Fotis Kapetopoulos’ entrepreneurial wiliness as one of my fellow travellers in the world ofmulticulturalism and the arts. I was also conscious of the incredible reputation of Donna Walker-Kuhne, America’s leading audience diversity experts and Fotis’ New York collaborator. Her deep smarts in the audience development and community engagement are unquestioned. So when the notice came through for this year’s study tour I took notice.

Changes in life make you more sensitive, more aware and more ready to articulate what you need. In a difficult year in terms of business, the loss of my sister and a growing cynicism and repetitiveness in my professional life, BtBA offered a chance for something different and exciting. As the son of Italian immigrants  NYC was always part of my diasporic dreaming. What can I say? Scorsese Francis Ford Copolla, LaGuardia, and every Italia American, Italian New Yorker embedded in my psyche since I was a child. I had to go!

A week in New York at the place of my imaginings and part of my consumed cultural literacy, my frame was corned by Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and the cultural clash between African Americans, older Italian migrants and newer arrivals in New York. It was also infused by the myriad of the great artists from or drawn to New York to ply their trade and lived out for a brief space in time, their artistic sensibilities in a place where all is tolerated. All set in art-deco magnificence.

I had spent two weeks there previously as a tourist but this time I would not need the map and the tourists shorts and slung camera. I would be given privileged access, I would be led and I would have the time to look around, up and down, listen to the voices and accents around me and look for experiences.

This was my head space as I travelled to New York. My body was full of expectation and adrenalin. The ride to Manhattan from JFK was in a glass top taxi, and I felt my 13 year old self: not being able to see enough, hear enough and all the time being distracted by the TV screen in the taxis reminding me that there was crassness in so much beauty.

The layered and paradoxical nature of New York was a key thematic during the week.

The five day program was intense: meetings, discussions, viewings, and tours. We were moved across the city in its underground passageways to emerge in different and emotive precincts: Queens, New Jersey, Brooklyn and the wonderful Harlem. We were let in behind the doors of museums, foundations, advocacy organisations and we benefited from the deep and enduring trust relationships between Donna and these key personalities in New York’s cultural scene.

You cannot take this tour without engaging with the issue of race. The cultural narrative is about a fundamental unifying cultural framework which is ‘being American’. This is and should be questioned. What is obvious is the many and varied Americas. The Hispanic bus boys in restaurants and bars, the well-heeled population of the Upper East Side and the changing cultural confusion of Harlem with new trendy money alongside people who have known the streets, who know each other and who share a past.

This is important because in our interest in arts access and equity, the ability to define populations and their experienced difference was fundamental to understanding what had been done to address access. We heard many variations of access ranging from the simplistic and laissez faire to the extremely articulate and elegant access strategies employed by Donna Williams who manages the successful Multicultural Audiences Development Strategy at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts.

The other palpable reality is the way the arts are positioned and supported in New York. My five days there were filled with both formal and casual arts experiences. Watching plays on Broadway, attending the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night, or unintentionally finding myself moving to the music flooding the subways, New York is a visceral experience.

I had an epiphany of sorts, one of those that come after a few bourbons in a midtown bar with Fotis spinning.  Both of us were inebriated enough, to be now well into deep reflection when I said: “I get it! I get why you’re here every year, and I get how I feel, we’re mainstream!”

Yes, the Greek and Italian Australian were mainstream in NYC, not ethnic. This was the republic and regardless of the fact that they were lynching Italians and Greeks along with African Americans in the 20s we were mainstream in NYC.

Later, after the emersion of sights and sounds one key thing that permeated through in our intense interactions was the essential role of philanthropy and private donations to the arts.

There are plaques on almost every physical asset in the performance spaces: chairs, bricks, foyer floors, and for the big donors the naming of theatres and facility rooms. The role of philanthropy and its public acknowledgement is part of the cultural DNA of New York. There is a particular normative behaviour in which everyone is comfortable in affording unquestioned status and privileges to donors: special areas, preferential treatment and I would even go as far as speaking in reverential tones about them. This was so different from our Australian experiences.

Yet without this privatised source would New York have an arts scene?

Where is audience in all this? The challenge for a place like New York is that there is no real way of determining who lives there and who is visiting there. Are the Spanish voices throughout Times Square tourists or are they the documented and undocumented migrants who keep the machinery of commerce well oiled. More importantly which of these is attending a Broadway show or a performance in Brooklyn’s BAM?

This is the challenge in understanding audience development in New York. In the observed best practice, companies and organisations sought to understand this, identify the potential resident audiences and develop methods and culturally relevant approaches to build the cultural capital needed to deliver long term audiences.

There is a lot to learn from BtBA and this learning will be more intense as we develop the narratives and relationships that will allow us to pick up the best and discard the worst of what New York has to offer.

So in leaving New York I have changed the soundtrack progressing beyond my Italian American cohort, Sinatra’s refrains and to the more complicated melody/rap combination of Keys and J-Zee.