Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last month that New York City’s new municipal identification cards will entitle their holders to free memberships at 33 major cultural institutions. The NYC ID program, scheduled to begin in January, is an attempt to normalize conditions for illegal immigrants who cannot obtain state IDs or passports. Modeled on a similar program in San Francisco, it will provide the undocumented with access to city buildings, medical care, and perhaps even savings accounts at financial institutions. For the vast majority of New Yorkers, the ID is superfluous, because they can get driver’s licenses or non-driver IDs from the Department of Motor Vehicles. But the mayor wants all citizens to obtain this new municipal ID so that no stigma is attached to it. The free memberships to institutions such as the Bronx Zoo, Lincoln Center, and the Public Theater are benefits meant to lure as many people as possible into obtaining an ID they really don’t need.
This goodie bag of arts and culture is being offered by New York’s Cultural Institutions Group (CIG), a consortium of 33 of the city’s largest museums and theaters, plus outdoor attractions such as botanical gardens and zoos. The deal to provide these one-year-only freebies was brokered by the new head of the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), Tom Finkelpearl, himself the former director of the Queens Museum, a CIG member. Finkelpearl is not coy about the real purpose of these cultural benefits. In an interview last month he said, “This is really so that you’re going to want to go out and get the ID card. The card doesn’t work if it’s just a card for undocumented residents.” In other words, the de Blasio administration intends to use the city’s cultural budget and institutions for the purpose of taking the stigma off breaking U.S. law.
The new IDs are opposed not only by conservatives who worry about the potential of fraud and even the possibility of illegals’ being able to vote, but also by the New York Civil Liberties Union on privacy grounds. There are serious questions as to whether it is appropriate for the members of the CIG, which are all 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations, to wade into such fraught political matters. They are providing a stamp of approval not only to the program but to de Blasio himself. There are very real concerns here about a conflict of interest. It appears that the Department of Cultural Affairs’ budget is being used as a slush fund to promote the mayor’s agenda.
In the 2015 New York City budget, the members of the CIG receive $109 million of the DCLA’s $159 million operating budget. That is a full two-thirds of the DCLA’s budget going to only a tiny fraction of the city’s cultural organizations. This in defiance of the City Council’s specific recommendation that the money be spread more widely and to smaller institutions. In its final report on the budget, the Council “suggested that DCLA create a system in which smaller arts organizations can receive a base level of support from DCLA for capital funding. Often-times smaller arts organizations cannot raise the necessary funds for capital projects and it minimizes their opportunity to better serve their communities. This suggestion was not reflected in the Executive Budget for fiscal 2015 or the outyears” (emphasis mine).
The implication of impropriety here is clear. When Commissioner Finkelpearl’s office was asked about his statement in the above interview that he was “working on a deal with CIG” for the free memberships, the reply was that nothing was promised by the commissioner. The DCLA claims that the memberships are being offered by these institutions to “expand their audiences and membership base, and as a way to demonstrate their commitment to providing inclusive cultural programming for all New Yorkers as part of their special relationship with the city.” Special relationship, indeed. When the CIG does the mayor a huge favor by inventing a reason for citizens to get an ID whose only purpose is to obscure the line between legal and illegal residents, and when that mayor defies the City Council to ensure that CIG’s funding levels remain outrageously high, it raises red flags.
Meanwhile, the cultural institutions that do not enjoy this “special relationship” with the de Blasio administration lose out. Despite de Blasio’s progressive pedigree and his campaign based on the Occupy Wall Street mantra of income inequality, in the area of culture he chose to make the rich richer — the institutions that make up the CIG are overwhelmingly enjoyed by the wealthiest, whitest New Yorkers. But there is no place in the mayor’s budget to improve the lot of the struggling small organizations more interested in their communities than in holding galas.
As is so often the case with progressive policies, the needs of the wealthy and well connected just happen to line up perfectly with the needs of the politicians pushing radical reform. If Mayor de Blasio believes that normalizing the lives of people living in the city illegally is a good call, he is free to make that argument. But to use the limited funds that the city offers to support arts and culture in order to secure that goal is wrong. The mayor should let his pro-illegal-immigration policies stand or fall on their own merit and let the city’s contributions to culture be about culture, not about himself and his broader progressive agenda.
— David Marcus is a contributor to the Federalist and the artistic director of Blue Box World, a Brooklyn-based theater project.