Arts Funding Helps In-Person Performances Make a Creative Comeback

BIPOC arts organization receives funding from City Council.

By Elizabeth Brewer and Riley Farrell

Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

As the sun set on Feb. 23, the violet lights in Dorothy Maynor Hall at The Harlem School of the Arts illuminated the makeshift stage. As 90 audience members shuffled into the sold-out show, the Harlem Chamber Players began their 14th Annual Black History Month Celebration. According to the founder Liz Player, this event, which cost $30,000 to produce, and would have been even more costly online, would not have been possible without the financial assistance from New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) Grant funding. 

“Ticket sales cover less than 20% of the cost to put on a concert,” Player said, after calling the relief application process, “easy for artists.” 

Main entrance at the Dorothy Maynor Hall at The Harlem School of the Arts, where the Harlem Chamber Player’s 14th Annual Black History Month Celebration concert took place on February 23, 2022, in Harlem, New York. Elizabeth Brewer for NY City Lens.

Just the day before the concert, the New York City Council Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations hosted a hearing to discuss how to make grants – such as the one awarded to the Harlem Chamber Players more accessible to artists from different backgrounds. The grants provided through the 2022 Cultural Development Fund, the largest ever, provide $51.4 million for 1,022 cultural organizations, including Harlem Chamber Players. 

“Minority and immigrant communities have been hit hardest by the pandemic,” DCLA Chair and Councilmember for the 36th District, Chi Ossé said. 

Councilmember Ossé said the Creative NYC 2019 Action Plan will be implemented during the predicted explosion of in-person cultural events in 2022. In the plan, Ossé said $3.55 million will be split between 50 organizations run by and serving people of color, in hopes of making the city’s art reflect its population.

According to Board President of the Harlem Chamber Players and professional violinist, Sandra Billingslea, their organization was one of the 50 to receive funding from the Creative NYC 2019 Action Plan. Billingslea said the pandemic also affected her own personal work as an artist tremendously, and if it weren’t for her pension, she would have needed to apply for personal artists grants as well. Some of her fellow musicians in Harlem Chamber Players were forced to move from New York City due to the financial strain of the past two years, Billingslea added. 

“For the younger artists, it not only affected them financially, as it did, me too,” Billingslea said. “But also, playing together, getting that interaction, social things, listening to each other.” 

Violinists Sandra Billingsea (front) and Ashley Horne (back) rehearsing before the concert at The Harlem School of the Arts on February 23, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

A study from the Department of Cultural Affairs found that 67 percent of New York City residents identify as people of color, while only 38 percent of employees at cultural organizations are people of color. 

Player said the pandemic meant having to find funding for the arts at a time when no one was supporting any nonprofit. According to Player, the secret to securing grant money is having strong funding in the first place. In addition to the local city grants, she said the Harlem Chamber Players also received money from New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) Restart New York Rapid Grants

 “We were planning to start the fall with everything online and then just waiting to see if we would return to in-person concerts in February,” Player said. “The NYSCA Grants was specifically for in-person concerts. It was to encourage arts organizations to start coming out and bringing concerts back live.” 

Kyle Walker, the pianist of the event who frequently showcases his abilities at iconic venues like Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater, said he felt ecstatic to perform before a crowd. Since events thrown by the Harlem Chamber Players represent art with increased accessibility, Walker said. Feb. 23’s showing was his third Black History Month showcase with the troop. 

“In-person events like this one tonight are important, especially being in Central Harlem, which has a rich history,” Walker said. “It’s important to bring back art in-person, and not just the extremely well-funded venues, which tend to serve elite people who can pay higher ticket prices.”

Bart Mather (left) and Yvonne Strumecki (right) are both volunteers for The Harlem Chamber Players. They are preparing programs before the show at Dorothy Maynor Hall at The Harlem School of the Arts on February 23, 2022. Elizabeth Brewer for NY City Lens.

Looking ahead, Player hopes that DCLA and NYCA will continue to provide funding to organizations like hers, so they can provide live music to underserved communities that might not have access to more expensive events. 

“A lot of the funding goes to large organizations, the ones that are most obvious like Lincoln Center, the Met Opera, the New York Philharmonic,” Player said. “We are trying to make our concerts accessible and affordable. Funding helps, but so do resources for capacity building. We are trying our best with just a few people.”