Thoughts on the Passing of Martin E. Segal

Martin Segal during New York City Ballet 2003-2004 Season - Opening Night Gala at New York State Theatre in New York City, Ne
Martin Segal during New York City Ballet 2003-2004 Season - Opening Night Gala at New York State Theatre in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Robin Platzer/FilmMagic)

My friend Marty Segal (1916-2012) was the driving force behind the creation of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. This was no small achievement, since it involved the revision of the City Charter and setting an entirely new course for the city government in this important area of social and economic activity. And it was accomplished at a time of great financial hardship for the city.

The measurement of the achievement is clearest in dollars: When the cultural affairs department was finally removed from the parks agency in 1977, it had a budget of about $25 million. Its budget now is $150 million, making it the second largest government arts agency in the country, only slightly smaller than the National Endowment for the Arts, larger than any of the 50 states.

But the real change was one of policy. Until 1977, funding the arts was a minor part of local government, overseen by a small staff that migrated from the mayor's office to the parks department and focusing almost exclusively on a group of mostly 19th-century institutions that had been established through the initiative of civic leaders who enlisted the city as their partner. Like much in government -- parks, libraries, bridges, schools -- the cultural organizations were survivors from an earlier, grander conception of the role of the city and dutifully carried on the city's books because of operating agreements that institutions like the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum had signed with the cities of New York and Brooklyn.

This approach to city-building began in 1877 with the agreement between the city and the American Museum of Natural History. It set the pattern: a major educational and cultural institution, reflecting New York's growing importance as a world city, established by a private group of civic leaders in a nearly equal partnership with New York City. The city provided the land -- an extension of Central Park -- and built the building, and agreed to help maintain the museum and contribute to its operating cost, and the private corporation agreed to run a first-rate institution by the highest scholarly and museological standards. This pattern worked, as not only Natural History but the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and others all proved. The citywide system of zoos (most under the Wildlife Conservation Society)\ and botanical gardens extended this approach into the natural sciences.

Over the century after the city-private arrangement for Natural History, this was the model for almost all city cultural funding. The policy was, in effect, that the initiative and management came from the private civic sector, while the city provided facilities on public land and operating support. Other cultural initiatives, such as the entirely private New York Philharmonic and the New-York Historical Society, both from the 1840s, predated this pattern but were themselves the models for the great early and mid-twentieth-century institutions, such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and Guggenheim museums and the New York City Ballet. These great institutions are independent of the City of New York to this day and, in most cases, receive little municipal funding for operations.

A second line of city funding for cultural activities began in the 1930s, when Mayor LaGuardia began providing free performances in the parks. When John Lindsay became mayor and established a number of 'super-agencies,' it seemed logical to give the responsibility for the city's relationship with cultural organizations to the new Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Administration, combining the summer parks programs and oversight of city-owned institutions in one office under the parks commissioner.

That was the situation that Martin Segal found in 1974, when he persuaded Mayor Abraham Beame that there could be a better city policy towards the arts which would produce economic, social and educational benefits. Mayor Beame appointed Marty the chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Cultural Policy. The Segal committee produced a report which for the first time made the case for the economic impact of the arts and called for an independent mayoral agency to manage the financial relationship between the City of New York and the cultural organizations and to make policy.

The Segal committee recommendations became law in 1976, when the City Charter was formally amended and Mayor Beame appointed Claude Shostal the new agency's first commissioner. Marty Segal's centrality to this effort was recognized by his appointment as chairman of the Advisory Commission for Cultural Affairs, also by Mayor Beame.

When Ed Koch defeated Abe Beame in the election of 1977, and appointed his own heads of both the Commission and Department of Cultural Affairs, Marty established the Cultural Assistance Center to carry on some of the projects he had planned while head of the Commission. These included publishing the first directory of New York City museums and beginning a guide to cultural programs for school-age children. Eventually, the Cultural Assistance Center took the lead in the most influential project in the area of New York City cultural policy: in 1983 it produced, under the leadership of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, The Arts as an Industry, the first study of the economic impact of the arts ever published. This report inspired similar efforts in cities from Boston to Barcelona, but it achieved its principal goal: to influence cultural policy in New York City. Within a decade, New York's cultural budget was three times its size when Ed Koch took office, an unprecedented and never-repeated increase.

At Marty Segal's memorial at Lincoln Center in September, both Reynold Levy, president of Lincoln Center, and Diane Coffey, who as Mayor Koch's chief of staff had pushed the steady increase in city funding for the arts, spoke about Marty's success in changing city cultural policy.

As deputy commissioner, and for a time acting commissioner of cultural affairs, I witnessed the impact on city policy of Marty's clear vision and steady advocacy. Later, as president of the Alliance for the Arts, the successor to the Cultural Assistance Center, I was proud to continue his commitment to economic research, to remind the mayor and the City Council of the arts' unique importance to this city. Marty was as important a civic leader, concerned about cultural policy, as an arts leader.