Saving New York Theater: A Political Status Report

What are the New York City, state and federal governments doing to address the challenges facing theaters in the city?

I contacted Guy Yedwab, president of the League of Independent Theater, to  find out, following up on the virtual Town Hall the League held last May (Town Hall: How Off-Off Broadway Can Be Saved)

Below are some of what’s already happened and what’s planned (hoped for!) in the new year.

It’s worth pointing out upfront that local governments are limited in what they can do without the support of the federal government. In the 117th Congress, which began Sunday, Democrats control 222 of 435 seats, the slimmest majority either party has held in two decades. And today’s run-off elections in Georgia for that state’s two U.S. Senate seats will determine which party will control the Senate.

New York City

The Open Culture Program

In December, the New York City Council unanimously passed this program into law, which will allow  performers to apply for permits to stage ticketed shows outdoors starting in March, modeled on the city’s outdoor dining program.
This means specific designated streets — but it can also mean any outdoor space, if approved by a City Councilmember by February 1st. “That means,” says Yedwab, “if you want to perform in public outside of a space designated as an Open Street, such as a plaza or a space in front of your theater, you need to speak to your City Councilmember before the end of January (realistically, as soon as possible). You don’t actually need to know what you’re going to perform there or commit to doing a performance, but if the space isn’t approved by February 1st, it won’t be available for an Open Culture performance.”

Tenant Anti-Harassment Laws

The City Council passed two laws on May 26, 2020, Intro 1932-2020 and Intro 1914-2020 that essentially discourage landlords from harassing commercial tenants during the crisis.

Yedwab reports: “Immediately after passage of those laws, landlords sued the city to bar enforcement in two separate lawsuits, one in federal court (Melendez v City of New York) and the other in state court (204 E. 38th LLC v Sons of Thunder LLC). In both cases, the court ruled that small businesses are an essential part of the economy (taking judicial notice of the 57 percent of workers that are employed by small businesses) and upheld the laws against all arguments. These victories are important not only because those laws can go into effect, but also because they provide precedents that the City and State have the power to interfere with lease contracts during the COVID crisis. One of the most common objections that we have been getting on all of these issues is that politicians are afraid that the laws won’t survive a court challenge — we now know that fear is unfounded.”

Commercial Rent Stabilization Bill

The League is one of the arts advocacy groups that are lobbying for the passage of a Commercial Rent Stabilization bill (Intro 1796), that would put a cap on commercial rents similar to the stabilization of some residential apartments. “In the new year, the coalition of arts organizations is going to push for Speaker [Corey] Johnson to take action on this legislation before this current City Council leaves.”

New York State

Many laws are in the works involving rent forgiveness, protection from eviction and the like; none have been passed yet. “I’m optimistic that there could be some relief from New York State in the new year, now that we have a Democratic supermajority in the State Senate and the election is no longer sucking up all the oxygen,” Yedwab tells me. “Everything is lined up for the legislature to take action — all they have to do is decide to act. We need to keep up the pressure to make sure they understand the urgency of the situation for our community.”

Establishing Criteria for Reopening

The League is currently distributing a letter — which they are urging arts workers to sign —  addressed to State Senator José M. Serrano,  the chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks & Recreation, to ask for a hearing to establish criteria for reopening the theaters, and allowing such other activities as indoor rehearsals.  “When reopening began, businesses were informed of four phases, each based upon specific health metrics,” the letter points out. “When schools reopened in the fall, decisions about opening or closing were centered around the publicly understood 3% positivity rate. Meanwhile, cultural venues remain closed without any publicly communicated phase or reopening criteria.”

Save Our Storefronts bill

The “big new development,” Yedwab says,  is Assemblymember Harvey Epstein’s “Save Our Storefronts” bill A10901 (S8865 from Sen. Brad Hoylman) which forgives most of the theater owner’s (and other store owners’) rent, with compensation to the landlord for the lost rent.

A graphic on the Save Our Storefronts advocacy website illustrates the details. The tenant (including a theater company) would pay either 20 percent of its income or 1/3 of its contractual rent (whichever is less) — which can be $0 if there is no income — and the state would compensate the landlord for up to 80 percent of the rent they would have been paid.

The League of Independent Theater, United for Small Business NYC, and Save Our Storefronts have been gathering co-sponsors and building a coalition around this Save Our Storefronts bill.

Rent Forgiveness bills

The State Legislature has two earlier bills that would “forgive” commercial rent (including for theaters), since they are unable to occupy the buildings nor collect any revenue from them. The difference is in the duration of the forgiveness.

Senate Bill S8125A (Sponsor: State Senator Michael Gianaris) / Assembly Bill A10224A (Sponsor: State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou) – Complete rent forgiveness for ninety days

Senate Bill S8190A (Sponsor: State Senator Julia Salazar) / Assembly Bill A10318A (State Assemblymember Joseph R. Lentol – Complete rent forgiveness during the COVID crisis and all future public emergencies.

Of the first, Yedwab says “As far as I’m aware, there has been no further action on this legislation”; of the second, “Senator Salazar is still promoting this legislation, not sure if it has gotten new sponsors lately but she intends to reintroduce it in the new session.”

Insurance coverage bill

A State bill would require insurers to pay for lost income during COVID-19 even if it was previously excluded from the policy, formally referred to as business interruption insurance coverage Senate Bill S8211A (Sponsor: State Senator Andrew Gounardes) / Assembly Bill A10226B (Sponsor: State Assemblymember Robert C. Carroll)

“This has picked up a lot of support in the Assembly, but I haven’t seen a lot of movement in the Senate.”

Commercial Leases emergency termination bill

The State Legislature has a bill that would allow commercial tenants (such as those renting a theater) to walk away from their lease before its end date during a state of emergency Assembly Bill A10471 (Sponsor: Assemblymember Harvey Epstein)

“I haven’t heard any updates on this legislation since last summer.”

The U.S. Government

Save Our Stages

As I wrote last month, the bill was  passed by Congress on December 20 and signed into law a week later as part of the  nearly $900 billion stimulus package . It promises to provide $15 billion worth of grants for the entertainment/cultural industry throughout the nation — which the Washington Post’s Peter Marks last week called “the largest public rescue of the arts in U.S. history.” But nobody is claiming it will be enough to stop “a great cultural depression,” as local musicians union president Adam Krauthamer told Patricia Cohen in the New York Times. “My fear is we’re not just losing jobs, we’re losing careers.”

The DAWN Act, etc.

Other proposed legislation that theater advocates have been lobbying for,  such as the DAWN Act (Defend Arts Workers Now), which I detailed in a post in September (Rallying to Save The Arts) are currently in a state of limbo.

From Forbes (in late December): “For the past few months, Americans for the Arts has been advising Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on the best way to forge a new partnership between the arts and government. In early September of this year, Americans for the Arts released “Putting Creative Workers to Work,” a template for arts and government cooperation. Proposed actions include an expansion of existing workforce hiring programs to include artists and creative workers, launching a program of federal arts commissions, developing an ArtistCorps within AmeriCorps, continuing CARES Act policies that extended benefits to the self-employed, and the creation of a new leadership position to coordinate federal arts policy.”

“We need federal support, first,” Brad Hoylman, who represents the theater district in the State Senate, said at the Town Hall last May. He is more specific in the new year:

“A Detroit-style investment and bailout of Broadway, similar to what the Obama Administration did for the auto-industry in 2009, would be ideal. It also would be in line with what other nations are doing. The U.K. has extended a $2 billion bailout to theaters. Germany has spent billions protecting cultural institutions. France is guaranteeing stipends to out-of-work actors and filmmakers. The rest of the world recognizes the importance of the arts to our lives, and I think our incoming president will recognize that too.”


A video from Be An #ArtsHero from September.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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