"This whole industry has completely been gutted."

New York City Council candidate Brandon West on his plan for the arts, getting workers paid, and the promise of community-owned arts venues.

"This whole industry has completely been gutted."

Before Brandon West launched his campaign to represent Brooklyn’s 39th District in the New York City Council, he served in the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget and in the City Council Finance Division. His experiences working inside the city government, and later as an organizer for groups like the New Kings Democrats and the Center for Popular Democracy, helped shape his campaign’s worker-focused agenda, which promises a Green New Deal, free and green public transit, housing justice, and substantial budget cuts to the NYPD.

West, whose endorsements include the Democratic Socialists of America, former gubernatorial hopefuls Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon, and state senator Julia Salazar, has also carved out a portion of his platform to New York City’s arts and culture workers. It promises significant public investments in the arts, from large organizations to independent artists and small collectives. It pledges to fight for fair pay, fair working conditions, and equal access for underrepresented groups. Of particular interest are West's plans to transform the city's arts ecosystem—dominated by large institutions, hostile to the un-monied—with commercial rent stabilization and novel land use policies.

I spoke to West yesterday about what his agenda will mean for comedy workers. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, is below. You can sign up to volunteer for the campaign here.

Just to start off, could you say a bit about how city policy currently serves arts and culture workers and where you see it failing?

Obviously this whole industry has completely been gutted and deeply impacted by the last year. But the more we campaigned and reached out to folks, the more we realized we need to weave this in in a more intentional way with the campaign. 'Cause there are so many folks in District 39 who are impacted by the fact that the arts are struggling right now in New York City.

In terms of where the city steps in and doesn't step in, there actually isn't a Committee of Arts and Culture in the city council. So there isn't a real catalyst for trying to think about ways to address policy for folks who are in these industries. We do have a Department of Cultural Affairs and a newly created Office of Nightlife, but the Office of Nightlife is very new and it's still going through growing pains. And the Department of Cultural Affairs is really centered towards major, massive cultural institutions, the major players in the entire city.

Folks who work in the arts are on their own. The venues are on their own. If it's a housing issue, you're dealing with a housing issue like everyone else is dealing with housing issues. You're dealing with worker pay issues, you're dealing with that in the same context as any other person in any other industry would. There isn't a really unique way of the city directly approaching these issues in a way that's targeted towards folks in the sector.

For most comedy workers in New York, practicing their art means taking expensive classes, performing for free at for-profit theaters or for cheap at clubs with exploitative practices, or trying to independently produce their shows in a city where affordable spaces are harder and harder to come by. What can the city do to make their working conditions fairer and comedy careers more accessible?

For venues that are large, we have to be able to mandate minimum pay for folks who are performing in the spaces. If it's a place that's owned by an entity that owns a lot of different spaces, or just a large one, or if the capacity is over 500 people, there's no reason why we can't be doing that. And that I think is one major part of it. But also I think it's really important that we find ways of either creating independent funds or funding streams that keep separately putting money from the city in a place that can be directly sent out for folks who are working in that smaller venue scene. I think at a certain point, when it comes to the city, you either pay for it if it's important, or you don't pay for it if it's not.

The other idea [is] community land trusts. Which is essentially taking these venues off the market and making them owned collectively by the folks who work there and the community. That will take art spaces out of the housing market, which will make them sustainable. If we do that, then we can have a completely different economic metric and be able to create funds for spaces, be able to fund people who want to get into those into that scene.

But until then, we have to create a separate pool of money for folks who are trying to get started. And I think outside of commercial rent relief, which would really supportive, I think the idea is creating a separate stream of funding that we can prioritize for certain folks. Especially if it's working class artists or comedians, folks in communities of color or just in certain parts of the city, and just have this thing that the city puts money into, that then venues and workers can take from and be able to use it.

What about smaller organizations? I'm thinking of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater or the People's Improv Theater, which I believe are both sub-500 houses that have work-for-exposure policies that are not strictly in compliance with wage and hour laws, especially as these companies make loads of money from classes and corporate training programs. Are there any mechanisms that the city can use to discourage work-for-exposure policies?

It's hard, just because that's how this has all been built out for so long. It's kind of like how folks who work in service industry are just assumed that like, "You'll get it on tips!" Some of the bigger players do have more at play in terms of what they're bringing in in revenue, because of these classes, and I think that's different. But there's also a bunch who are smaller and don't, so it's hard to shift them into a place where they can afford to start paying a living wage for everyone who's coming in the door. That's ideal, but it just costs too much in New York City. We've let things get too difficult to be able to have places start off small and pay people well. And we can blame macroeconomics for that.

What the city can do, I think, is first you can highlight the real egregious examples of pay inequities, stealing salaries, and focus on that. But then in general we just have to create a situation where a relatively small space can start to afford giving some type of salary. I understand there are pros for budding comedians working on their material in a lot of these venues, but City Council can lessen the burden on these smaller venues by providing a fund for venues to pay artists.

I think we can probably gradually move to an expectation that places that usually do it for exposure do eventually start to pay. And then rather than doing it overnight, we can kind of build in support from the city and gradually say, "Okay, now you have to pay a certain amount." And then say, "Okay, now you have to pay this amount." Just so that it's not done all at once. I think that will probably make it a little bit easier for places to start getting there, rather than refuse to do it just because, like, "Oh, no, we were already struggling. We can't do this now."

I'm interested in these community land trusts. One thing I've learned writing about comedy is that these theaters all across the country—UCB, Second City—they all rent, for the most part, and they're structured to take lots of money from their students and their customers and use it to pay their landlords and their creditors. My educated guess is that that's not unrelated to the low pay and poor labor conditions. Could you say more about the process of creating community land trusts? Or other ways that policy can be used to make the arts industry less structured around paying landlords?

One way is we could just do commercial rent relief. We can just start to pay that. We could use state and some local funding to kind of make that happen. That is one very obvious thing that we can be doing.

There's a lot of DIY spaces out there, a lot of spaces that are at the whim of the landlord, and the landlord's opinions change or property values in the neighborhood go up… Let's say a person owns a place and they pass away or they leave. The workers would probably want to take over the ownership of the business, but people don't know how that works. There's actually resources within the city to help workers take over places that transition from their previous owners into cooperatively run businesses. That's a little secret that I think people need to know and understand. That's a big shift in terms of worker power in general.

With community land trusts, usually it's a construct cut in thirds. A third is the staff themselves, a third is usually stakeholders—a major nonprofit or a major entity that's investing—and then usually local communities. Sometimes it could just be folks on the block, and they all cooperatively create an entity to essentially own the venue itself. And the city can help create those entities and help move venues off landlords and onto this kind of structure. And then have it be owned by the people who care about these things. That's something we could do with spaces that already exist, that people care about. But we can do that with any property the city owns that isn't used.

Folks are always looking for new spaces for the arts. We can be offloading some of these spaces, especially if it doesn't logistically make sense to turn it into housing or something like that based on the zoning or location. Usually we just wait, let it sit there and be derelict until some landlord has some crazy idea for it. The city could be trying to find these nonprofits and pairing them up with folks who have ideas. That’s another thing the city could be doing if we had a committee that was focused on creating energy and space around us. This would happen more often.

Community land trusts do take a while, but once you get it done you have a really great thing that really everyone owns. And it survives. And I think that's the long-term goal. If we do this and folks aren't paying ridiculous amounts of rent, 'cause they're owned, and people have a stream of revenue that's reasonable—again, like I said, it changes the whole dynamic of the relationship between the workers and the venue itself.

A couple months ago I published an article in the New Republic tracing how New York's comedy clubs, which have long been these extremely white, male, and just really conservative institutions, helped incubate the alt-right. As the city recovers from Covid, I'm seeing a risk that clubs, which have ready audiences and money to pay comics and which historically are very averse to policing hate speech, will be able to consolidate their power over a workforce that's increasingly unable to find their own independent performance spaces. How do you think people can build worker power in this precarious industry full of freelancers that cultivates an every-man-for-himself, temporarily-embarrassed-SNL-writer mentality?

I think a big part of it is when there's instances of abuse or discrimination or harassment, we have to push back, and we have to name that, and fight it, and not let it persist. And not let bad actors continue to flood the industry with this behavior. I think that's big. When we had a bigger unionized labor landscape, those fights were all really public and it pushed bad players out of different industries. That's something that's done in some spaces—I would say a little bit more in construction, because there's still some construction unions that still have a relative amount of power. That's all winding down, but I think that is one way to do it.

Everyone loves to exploit a crisis. In the rolling out of this pandemic, every industry's gonna be a little different. And we can't let the folks who have a bit more money—especially folks who made money off this crisis—funnel that in a way to create less robust, less worker-centric, less worker-friendly spaces. So that means, one, you gotta target communities of color and underrepresented folks in the industry and find space for them. And direct them to revenue to get started, revenue to create new spaces. We go out of our way to target contractors from underrepresented communities, there's no reason why we aren't doing that with the arts in the same way. We have to make sure that we're pushing really hard for fair working conditions all the time.

That, I think, is something the city has to be involved in, but rank-and-file folks in the arts need to be involved in that too. People getting fair contracts, getting minimum pay rates, all of what we're looking for… that takes a lot of grassroots organizing. Because we're not there yet. I'm saying a lot of things where we really haven't created the landscape for it yet. But I think we can do that if we have a city that's really talking about it and engaging with folks who are most impacted.

All these people want it, so it's not like we have to convince people this is a good idea. Folks in this scene have been asking about this stuff and caring about this stuff forever. There's no one really paving the way for it, and I think that is the way that we can make sure that the reopening isn't one that's a bunch of venues and players who aren't interested in the values of the working class.

At a personal level, what are you most excited for when the arts are back in earnest in New York?

I used to DJ, I used to go to a lot of concerts. I just want to be in a club, man. I just want to be in music venues all the time. Actually, we're doing a canvas—I'm gonna be knocking some doors, but we're going to Barbès afterwards. It's like a block from where my campaign office is. I just remember sweaty days in a back room listening to fantastic music, just rolling up and being like, "Yeah, whoever's gonna be there is gonna be good." And just being able to do that is something that I'm looking forward to the most, just because it was such a big part of my life.

Is there anything else in your platform that you’d want comedy workers or arts workers to know before we wrap up?

I do feel like it's important that we create a committee. When I did more research about the makeup of the Department of Cultural Affairs and realized who was on it, I was was just like, “This is stupid.” Which is not surprising at all, honestly, just based on who has the most power in the city when it comes to anything. It's gonna be folks who carry the most weight already in those spaces, not the folks that we see every day who are in the arts. We really need to change the makeup of this committee, I think that is an important thing. And it goes to community boards, it goes to anywhere people are appointed to a system of power and influence in our government. If you don't have the right people there, you’re gonna get not the best results.

After 9/11 we had River to River, which was a festival intended for bringing folks back into Manhattan. We should be already getting ready for festivals and other things we should be doing—that the city should be spending money on and paying people well for—to bring people back to the city and engage in all forms of art. I think that probably will happen, but if we do it in a not really intentional way, it will be helpful, but it won't go to the folks who were the most negatively impacted by the last year. So a big part of this is centering those who were most impacted and marginalized in these spaces and the scene, so that these folks can come back. And we can have folks creating new art and comedy and getting careers started and flourishing.

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