09/24/2013 03:09 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Thoughts on the Passing of Edward I. Koch

Thoughts on the Passing of Edward I. Koch

Mayor of New York City:
A Modern Mayor for the Arts

As this vivid personality passed from life to legend last February, it is appropriate to look at the full depth and complexity of his legacy. The abundant commentary that Mayor Koch's death provokes focuses on the largest aspects of his achievement and the most controversial of his political engagements. Little has been said about his record in cultural matters.

This is a good time to make such an assessment, since we are in the final stages of the election of a new mayor, who we hope will be motivated by the record of strong arts mayors like Ed Koch and Michael R. Bloomberg.

Ed Koch lived in Gracie Mansion, the stately 18th-century house overlooking the East River that has been the residence of New York City mayors since Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1940s. Although he sometimes retreated to his private apartment in Greenwich Village on weekends, he would occasionally walk over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and stroll, without ceremony, through its galleries. Although certainly never a conventional cultural sophisticate, Mayor Koch was, in fact, like many of his fellow-New Yorkers, someone who loved the people's palace of art.

'The People's Palace' was the term Koch's first commissioner of cultural affairs, Henry Geldzahler, called the Met, a place Geldzahler had fallen in love with as an immigrant teenager and a museum where he was destined to become the first curator of 20th-century art.

Ed Koch's humble service to the Met Museum, even while serving as mayor, and therefore, in effect, landlord of the museum - since it occupies a city-owned building - was a simple indication of his quiet understanding of the social importance of culture in his native city. Like many New Yorkers, Mayor Koch liked to visit the city's museum, implicitly invoking the meaning of its very name: Metropolitan.

While serving as mayor, Koch understood that the relationship between cultural institutions and citizens was a fundamental privilege of New Yorkers, whether they were walking across the street or traveling long distances to visit the Brooklyn or Bronx or Queens or Staten Island museums, or the New York or Brooklyn botanical gardens, or the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Carnegie Hall or the Public Theater or Snug Harbor Cultural Center or Lincoln Center. Koch also understood that as strong as the influence was of the private cultural leaders who had the vision for cultural institutions, and as strong as the support was of the private philanthropists who helped build these institutions, still the City of New York was an essential partner in cultural development.

There would have been no Met or Brooklyn Museum or Bronx Zoo or New York Aquarium without major investment from, and cooperation with, the city. Mayor Koch instinctively understood this, and often prompted by his Commissioner Geldzahler, he acted time after time to strengthen the city's support of these cultural institutions, large and small.

The result: Under Edward Koch, the cultural affairs budget of the City of New York increased more than three-fold, from about $24 million in 1978 to about $85 million in 1989, making it larger than the federal budget for the National Endowment for the Arts. Further, the city ratified its relationships with a number of cultural institutions, establishing long-term relationships and financial support for Carnegie Hall, the Public Theater, the Studio Museum in Harlem, El Museo del Barrio and the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, among others.

Understanding that cultural institutions, like public housing and libraries and hospitals, are meant to be established in communities for the long term, the Koch administration significantly increased its budget for capital improvements in the arts, investing millions in the expansion of existing institutions and the development of new public facilities in every borough. A photograph of Mayor Koch seeming to kiss a leaping dolphin at the New York Aquarium, at the dedication of a new city-financed facility, sums up the joy, humor and advanced policy of the Koch administration in cultural development.

Mayor Koch had several advantages besides his own inherent sympathetic interest in the value of cultural institutions. One was the presence of key members of his staff in City Hall who were quiet but effective advocates for cultural development - his early Deputy Mayor Ronay Menschel and Chief of Staff Diane Coffey, who worked closely with Commissioner Geldzahler and the Cultural Affairs Department staff. Another was a strong current in the business and civic community, led by financier Martin E. Segal, who organized the first study ever done of the economic impact of the arts sector, working with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Diane Coffey was later to serve as Acting Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, even while remaining Chief of Staff in the Mayor's office, another sign of the importance Mayor Koch placed on this area of government.

(It is worth noting that, working with Diane Coffey and Ronay Menschel on cultural projects were two young women destined to lead the strong record of arts support of the current administration of Mayor Bloomberg: Patricia Harris, now First Deputy Mayor, and Kate Levin, now Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. Through them, the Koch legacy in city cultural policy has continued and grown.)

The philosophy of the Koch administration towards culture was simple: private nonprofit organizations would continue to take the lead in developing public programs, but the City of New York would support them in making these programs available to the public. The city also supported cultural activities that stimulated the economy, whether through the employment of local workers or the attraction of tourists. Under Ed Koch, the city even reached out to individual artists, investing in the CETA artists program, which employed practicing artists to work in schools and other public locations.

The extraordinary growth of the cultural budget of the city under Mayor Koch is reason enough to consider him one of the great arts mayors of New York. There is one other: Ed Koch, living up to a campaign pledge, instituted the Percent for Art program, through which one percent of the construction budgets of certain public buildings that were embedded in local communities was dedicated to commissioning works of art, adding a cultural dimension to simple courthouses and schools and firehouses through murals and sculptures and other works designed by contemporary New York artists. What greater statement could a city make about the value of art and the importance of artists?

Randall Bourscheidt was Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Affairs under Mayor Koch from 1981 to 1987, and Acting Commissioner in 1983.