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Museums and Zoos That Gave You Free IDNYC Memberships Want Something Back

By Nicole Levy | March 24, 2016 6:06pm
 Four of the 40 New York City cultural institutions participating in the IDNYC program
Four of the 40 New York City cultural institutions participating in the IDNYC program
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Flickr/ingrid Richter; Jane Dickson; Alan Huett; André-Pierre du Plessis

Far away from the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan and the Frick on Fifth Avenue, there stands in Snug Harbor one little museum that could.

The Staten Island Museum, which this past September reopened in a new building with more space to display artifacts long hidden in storage, has seen an influx of visitors from across the metropolitan area in recent months.

"We may be Staten Island-centric, but we’re not Staten Island-stuck," interim director Cheryl Adolph insisted.

Her museum is one of 40 cultural institutions participating in Mayor de Blasio's municipal ID program. Now in its second year, the IDNYC program gives cardholders the ability to redeem free year-long memberships at museums, performing arts centers, botanical gardens and zoos looking to grow their audiences. Its incentives are intended to increase access to culture for city residents who feel they otherwise couldn't afford a trip to the ballet or the opera, and to encourage sign-ups among all New Yorkers, not just the undocumented immigrants for whom IDNYC is most vital.

IDNYC cardholders have redeemed more than 340,000 memberships so far, making the initiative an "enormous success," Department of Cultural Affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl said Wednesday at a City Hall hearing on the mayor's preliminary budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Underwriting that success story are the privately-run public institutions that volunteered to donate their time and services to the program, a contribution that cultural administrators and local politicians are now calling on the city to acknowledge with an additional $40 million in funding for cultural groups large and small before the new budget goes into effect on July 1.

"While we are still so happy that everyone is both getting IDNYC and then redeeming their memberships, we want to make sure the cultural organizations that stepped up are getting what they need and rightly deserve," Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the City Council's Committee on Cultural Affairs, said Wednesday.

The unified push by both big institutions and smaller programs for an increase over last year's funding is a novel one for the city's cultural sector, which fought annual threats of budget cuts under the Bloomberg administration. In the budget that took effect last July, the city gave the Department of Cultural Affairs $166 million, which was $9 million more than the year before, but $2 million less than the amount allotted back in fiscal year of 2008, according to two sources. 

"There have been rising costs throughout the sector, and we haven’t seen an increase [in city funding] that helps to counterbalance that at all," said Heather Alexa Woodfield, executive director of One Percent for Culture, a coalition of arts groups across the city.

With a shrinking percentage of its financial operating support coming from the city, the Staten Island Museum and its 16 staffers see the expenses of administering the IDNYC program —  including staff time, printing, postage and lost admission fees — as "quite an investment," Adolph said in written testimony submitted to Van Bramer's committee in December. She estimated that the cost of one free membership amounted to $15.

Back in December, the New York City Ballet’s director of foundation and governmental relations, Catherine LeClair, forecasted that a second year of free member sign-ups would cost the group an extra $70,000 to $75,000 in membership expenses. It would also entail hiring another full-time staffer to help process memberships, update email contact lists, and maintain quality service for existing members.

“We are willing to take this on because we value the long-term potential, and we are enthusiastic about how this helps our institutional mission to serve a broad population of New Yorkers,” she wrote in a statement to the city council's cultural committee.

The Staten Island Museum is thus far fulfilling that mission for Adolph, who said that 66 percent of the Staten Island Museum's 1,164 newly-registered IDNYC members live off the island, compared to the 15 percent of paying members who do. IDNYC cardholders with memberships at the museum add up to more than double the amount of paying members.

But the IDNYC program's long-term impact on cultural institutions across the five boroughs will hinge on just how many cardholders renew their memberships when they expire, as Commissioner Finkelpearl explained at Wednesday's hearing:

"The big question is … what percentage of the 340,000 [IDNYC signups to cultural institutions] become new paying members? If we ended up with 75,000 new paying members, that would be a fantastic achievement," he said. 

With membership revenue down for the last two quarters at the Staten Island Museum, Adolph said, “We have believe the benefits of [the IDNYC program] are going to outweigh any of the short-term losses.”

The Staten Island Museum hopes to convert IDNYC card carriers into paying members with picnics introducing them to their fellow culture seekers and weeknight evening hours this summer.

Asked for insight into member retention by cultural institutions so far, Finkelpearl said it's too early to provide that.

"There are very few who have now lapsed their memberships," he said. "Some early indications look pretty good, but we're just not sure. It will play out in the next three, four months" — by which time the city's budget will already have taken effect. 

That timeline didn't sit well with cultural affairs committee member Laurie Cumbo, who expressed frustration with the notion that the arts are "just a magical thing that takes place." 

"I think," the council member said, "that .... organizations should be compensated or rewarded for the fact that this has broken all ideas of what success is for New York City."

More than 75,000 memberships have been redeemed in 2016 alone, according to Rosemary Boeglin, a spokeswoman for the mayor's office. 

"The City of New York is proud to be the largest local funder of arts and culture in the United States," she said in a statement. "IDNYC has opened a new pathway for so many residents to connect with our city's remarkable cultural assets. We look forward to continuing our close work with partner organizations and the City Council to provide access to awe-inspiring and mind-opening cultural experiences for all New Yorkers."

“The tremendous response to IDNYC really shows that people want culture," said the cultural advocate Woodfield, an artist herself. "Government funding helps make it accessible."