Fourth Arts Block: Rethinking Growth, Capacity, and Its Constituency

Fourth Arts Block is exploring complex challenges around three themes – scope, capacity, and constituency.

Fourth Arts Block, which supports a rich arts community on the Lower East Side of New York and beyond, is thinking about strategies for the future in EmcArts's New Pathways for Arts Development program.
Fourth Arts Block is thinking about organizational strategies for the future in EmcArts’s New Pathways for Arts Development program. Image: Whitney Browne.

This is the first post from Tyler S. Bugg about Fourth Arts Block’s experience in the New Pathways for Arts Development program. We asked him to reflect on the organization’s thinking after the first two workshops. Read more from participants in the New Pathways for Arts Development program here.

Fourth Arts Block today

Fourth Arts Block (FABnyc), an organization supporting a rich arts community on the Lower East Side of New York and beyond, is in a time of tremendous transition. Since its founding in 2001, FABnyc has made huge strides in the East 4th Street Cultural District by securing property ownership rights for arts groups in eight buildings on the block between the Bowery and Second Avenue, by providing free and low-cost rehearsal space and training programs for artists, and by serving as a centralized resource for its several arts, cultural, community member organizations.

In the past three months, FABnyc has seen a major staff turnover, begun expanding its Board of Directors, and embarked on new leadership roles in citywide advocacy and in spurring cross-sector responses to supporting struggling neighborhoods.

What are the complex challenges your organization has identified during the first two workshops?

Today, amidst all of its success, FABnyc is finding itself most challenged around three themes – scope, capacity, and constituency.

With services that reach 28 member organizations and thousands of independent and emerging artists, FABnyc has serious questions about how it can continue to evolve and sustain the scope of its work while maintaining the roots of its history. The most natural next step is to expand our programs to accommodate a broadening of our membership, but we want to temper the inclination towards a ‘growth as success’ mentality. Instead, we are reexamining our assumption that FABnyc’s current organizational model is the most effective method for addressing the ongoing needs and interests of our member organizations, and of FABnyc’s own projects and programming.

As we’re questioning the scope of our work, we must also address capacity to manage growth and evolution. With a regular staff of only three and with demand from multiple sources at multiple scales, we are limited in our ability to pursue all the opportunities in which we are interested.

FABnyc’s original, narrowly defined constituency included arts and cultural groups on East 4th Street who were threatened by the possibility of being evicted from their homes. Those groups now own their properties, and FABnyc has grown into taking on the broader issues of equity, affordability, and artistic and cultural support for a wider group of stakeholders on the block, in the Lower East Side neighborhood, and across the entire city. It is now crucial for us to think about who and where we want our work to impact.

What underlying assumptions has your organization identified and what evidence are you identifying that is causing you to question those assumptions?

Our current work is squarely situated in three prongs – member services, artist services, and community-based advocacy. Our overarching assumption rests in the inclination to attend to each prong at an equal and constant level, that we must “do” all three all the time in order to fulfill our current understanding of our mission.

FABnyc is most interested in more deeply examining the assumptions we have around the member services prong. Our dedication to member services is largely rooted in the history of our founding, which was to create a coalition of art, cultural, and community members to address the specific issue of eviction on East 4th Street. We have continued to assume that our members are geographically focused around this block, that our art and cultural members are threatened and under-resourced at the hands of gentrification and competitive funding climates, and that shared resources, collection action, and a cultural-community lens are all the best possible tools for creating successful solutions.

However, low meeting attendances, a membership that is spread much farther than the immediate neighborhood, and the fact that shared resources are becoming more used by artists and organizations outside of our local members are all pieces of evidence that continue challenging the way we develop and provide member services.

Furthermore, our increased involvement in both community- and city-wide arts and culture advocacy, especially around the transitions in the New York City’s Mayor’s Office and City Council, has demanded more time, attention, and resources than member services. This and the shift in member services engagement is evidence that a more flexible, adaptive ebb and flow for how we engage the three prongs simultaneously – rather than distributing resources to each equally – may be a more effective and impactful way to successfully support them all.

How has your identification of those assumptions and challenges already impacted your work? What conversations or behavior indicate those changes?

The New Pathways workshop series is happening at a good time for FABnyc. As we begin wrapping up several multi-year initiatives and planning for the new fiscal year, we see the spring and summer months as a fresh opportunity to resituate the dynamics between the members, artists, and advocacy community we want to continue interacting with.

To retain a more comprehensive perspective that takes all three prongs into account, we’ve begun the process of transforming our Board of Directors from its original founding members to a larger, more representative group that better includes the independent artists and community advocates we want to support. We’ve also begun to test more cross-sector approaches for supporting the struggling neighborhoods near and dear to us and throughout the rest of the city. For example, while we’re still partnering with other theatre and dance companies to continue administering our popular Dance Block program, we’re also working with several new businesses, academic and religious centers, and government entities to implement our new FABLES program and to spearhead the planning for the inaugural Lower East Side History Month.

We’re extremely excited to continue activating these new circuits with the expectation that doing so will positively impact the members, artists, and advocates equally as we press forward to a rich and adaptive future.

Tyler S. Bugg is a writer, artist, and organizer from central Georgia and based in New York. He is a programs coordinator at Fourth Arts Block, where he directs the Dance Block program, and a public engagement consultant for New America NYC. His writing has appeared in Salon, Huffington Post, PolicyMic, and SLAG MAG. He holds a BA from the University of Georgia and an MA in Arts Politics from the Center for Art and Public Policy at NYU.