Arts programming is an area Craig T. Peterson knows far too well, as someone who has been in the business for over three decades. Now, he is the president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, or LMCC, after having served a dual role as vice president for
visual and performing arts and executive artistic director of Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement.
As an artist himself, Craig has curated and directed programs with New York Live Arts and Live Arts Brewery, among other arts organizations. In an interview with New York Nonprofit Media, Craig talks about the resilience of the arts community through the coronavirus pandemic, the role of artists in New York and the importance of supporting them.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How have arts organizations emerged from the coronavirus pandemic and how do you specifically plan to continue the momentum now that we are moving on from COVID-19?
It's been incredibly challenging for the community just to know what to do and how to do it because there has not been consistent guidance, specifically for those public spaces to be able to continue operating, and that's true for LMCC because just prior to COVID-19, LMCC opened the Art Center on Governors Island. And then, of course, everything closed down and things went sideways for several months for the entire city. Another challenge that happened in particular with our community is artists and arts workers, just like a lot of people, lost an incredible amount of work and support during the early years of the pandemic in ways that were super challenging because our arts communities are really built on a gig economy, which is not a sustainable or does not provide a safety net when things like a pandemic happens. So a lot of the work that arts organizations were doing was just trying to keep their staff employed and continue to support artists in new ways, who could not get out and make money in the ways they normally do, like teaching or working in schools. A lot of the attention turned to, how do we support artists during unprecedented times? I think the thing that we're really looking forward to now with going back into more general operating procedures is being able to pick up where we left off with the Governors Island project and making sure that we can move that forward and that we can help artists get back on their feet and stay on their feet moving forward.
LMCC in the past has supported artists as they explored themes, such as racial equity. What role do you believe LMCC will play in Black and Asian American communities post-COVID-19 and as artists continue to fight for social justice?
All of the issues that the pandemic brought to the surface with great urgency were things that had been there for a long time, things that have been brewing under the surface for a long time. And so when the uprisings happened in 2020 and there was a lot of reckoning around those issues, I feel like the arts community was really ready to respond, and I say that only because I strongly believe that artists are our voices for social change. Artists are imagining a future for us that doesn't yet exist and many of those issues have been really present in artistic work for many years. It's up to institutions to really figure out how to lift those up and carry those forward. I believe that social justice work is inherent in artistic practice because I believe that all of those things are a public service. While it was a huge undertaking, it's work that I have been invested in and working on for a long time and in various contexts and I'm excited to figure out ways to carry that forward in my new role at LMCC. I think we have to address a lot of those issues. Also with issues around climate change as well. Because LMCC is now part of Governors Island which has a strong focus on climate change, I'm looking forward to figuring out how all of these things can be topics and subject matters that we can create platforms for artists to explore and develop new work around. It's been a really challenging couple of years for New York and more broadly, I believe that all arts organizations are a public service and LMCC in particular, being the Cultural Council for Manhattan, has an obligation to lift up and speak to issues that artists are bringing forward. I think there is a tremendous interest right now, by artists and by arts organizations, to make sure we're uplifting the voices of people who are often not supported or not uplifted by institutions in the city. So I'm hoping that in my new role, I'll be able to continue to create platforms for artists to be able to explore those issues.
How do you hope LMCC will impact the community now that you are assuming the role as president?
There's three major pillars to LMCCs activity: The River to River Public Art Festival, Governors, Island and a re-granting program for New York based artists. And I really feel that all of those things are sort of parallel missions that are hefty in and of themselves. One of the things that I'm really interested in doing is figuring out how we can come back from this pandemic in a way that allows us to not only continue to seek ways to support New York-based artists, but to figure out how to develop and how to start thinking about sustainable lives for artists and how these artists can continue to move to New York and be artists in this in this city. Now that we're seeing a tremendous challenge with cost of living and housing, all of the things that make New York City a challenging place to live are getting harder for people, for artists in particular, and I'm worried that we're not going to continue to be that place where everybody looks to move, like a young college student looks to move here to pursue their dreams around art and creativity. The big challenge that we face is just the expense of New York right now and the lack of opportunity that is actually here to be able to come and build a life. Particularly if you're working in a gig economy like art making. So I'm looking at ways to pull up a few thousand feet and have a bigger wider perspective that looks really at an ecosystem, that looks at policy, that looks at housing, that looks at equity, all of those issues that really feel like they've been exacerbated, both by the pandemic and by the the challenges with real estate in New York City. I think there's a lot of work to do. The other way I'm looking at that is about how LMCC can also help other small arts organizations and maybe rally small arts organizations in a way that brings us into better alignment with one another, this is work that some of us have been doing over the course of the pandemic, particularly around COVID-19 protocols and policies and our spaces, we try to get together and think about ways that we can better support and serve communities safely, But it's been somewhat leaderless, and so I'm hoping that LMCC will have an opportunity to play a role in helping to carry our organizations and our cultural life which in essence will help carry our cultural life a little bit forward out of the pandemic.
What are your goals for LMCC and where do you hope it will take the organization in the future?
First and foremost we are set to set a long-term lease on Governors Island, it would be a 39 year lease, which would enable us to really plan for the future out there. Governors Island has become a real beacon for New York City-based artists who need residency and studio time, and also has become a gathering spot for the arts community in a really special way. But I'm also excited for what else is going on in the island. With the Climate Justice Center, I feel like there's a lot of opportunities for partnership and thought leadership around climate change and how artists can participate in conceiving of ideas, resolutions or activist actions that can happen around climate change. I feel like there's an opportunity for strengthening partnerships out there. I also have big ideas about thinking through some possible exciting residency opportunities for artists to perhaps work with scientists or others who will be out on the island to think through some of these issues. Lastly, trying to see if there is an opportunity for LMCC to help small arts organizations and artists really come back from this pandemic and figure out new solutions for sustainable work for everybody.