Four Ways Turnout NYC Is Changing Community-Based Performing Arts

person dancing outside with headphones on; others are gathered behind them A “silent disco” soundscape and portrait-taking session at the 125th Street and Park Avenue underpass in Harlem led by the National Black Theatre with Uptown Grand Central. Photo by Andre Whitehead.

We take a look at how community-led partnerships have catalyzed equitable access to the arts across the five boroughs.

Throughout 2020–21, New York’s creatives struggled over how to come out of lockdown and safely get the show back on the road. Then, the Open Culture Program created a policy framework to allow for events in public rights-of-ways. But how could artists and communities get a handle on the equipment and administrative support necessary to stage their events? Enter Turnout NYC, a program spearheaded by SITU and the Design Trust for Public Space that mounted its inaugural season this summer. A Mellon grant of $2 million supported this work. 

Conceived to be as flexible, responsive, and resilient as the artists and art forms it presents, Turnout NYC has not just reimagined how to structure community-based performance; it has also catalyzed artists as change agents. 

To date, Turnout NYC has activated five flexible and semi-permanent outdoor performance venues—one in each of New York’s five boroughs—in collaboration with cultural partners and artists. Designed by the architectural practice SITU, the soup-to-nuts kit includes a modular stage, seating, A/V systems, a backdrop, signage, and more. As for the Design Trust—a nonprofit dedicated to bringing forward-looking innovations to New York City’s public spaces—it facilitates partnerships and handles project management at each site. 

Presenting Art for and by Communities

From theater in parks to dance in the streets, New York holds a long tradition of bringing art to the people. But what about providing a platform for art made by the people? 

“Turnout NYC is unlike the typical New York festivals that bring their performance to the community,” says Design Trust Executive Director Matthew Clarke. “While that is great, we’re saying, ‘Here are the tools and the resources for you to do your own performances.’ So we build the guardrails and the structure, and you take that and go forward.” 

After mounting performances and classes in a small theater, Queensboro Dance Festival Executive Director Karesia Batan concluded that the organization couldn’t exist in just one location if it were to represent the dynamism of Queens dance artists and audiences. “We don’t have our own brick-and-mortar space—the borough is our stage,” explains Batan.

Resourcing Artists as Change Agents

At first glance, one might not immediately equate queer creativity, struggle, and liberation with a former Dutch colonial farmhouse on Staten Island. But that’s precisely what’s been happening at the Alice Austen House Museum on Staten Island for more than a century. Named for Austen, the iconoclast photographer who documented unconventional Victorian women, immigrant newcomers, and other New Yorkers, the home is where she lived with her partner Gertrude Tate. 

As a Turnout NYC cultural partner, the site enabled Alejandra Moran to revive this spirit, staging on-site performances inspired by traditional Mexican dances to raise awareness of the cultural and social justice work of her Latinx transgender advocacy organization, L’Unicorns.   

“Silence is a death sentence,” says Moran in a video about her project. “Through our culture, we can speak for those who no longer can. There are some of us who are no longer with us because of all the violence there’s been.” 

Making Art and Artists Essential

By design, Turnout NYC brings opportunities for cultural expression and engagement to areas of New York City that have been subjected to longstanding disinvestment and hit hard by the pandemic, from the neighborhood with the city’s highest poverty rate (Mott Haven in the Bronx, 37.7%), to the community with the city’s largest immigrant population (Corona in Queens, 64.2%). 

Festival Director Batan stresses how being a cultural partner of Turnout NYC helps Queensboro Dance Festival reach communities where arts programs are scarce while providing opportunities for artists to give back and connect to the places in which they live. She also notes an essential equity aspect of their operations: Turnout NYC’s partnership has eased financial burdens so that the festival can pay each participating artist a fair wage.

Building More Than Just a Stage

When not in use for an event, equipment may be left outside as plaza furniture and used by local communities to gather, relax, and convene.

“In addition to the design, there are the pieces that have allowed us to activate the human infrastructure, the networks of people,” explains Clarke. “It’s about these organizations in place, which, in turn, are working with communities in place … and it has enabled a lot of flexibility.”

“Creating a kind of a platform like this has allowed funding to reach artists in a unique way and through a wonderful expression of place, people, and story,” he concludes.

Videos by Natalie Romero-Marx, Turnout NYC Communication and Storytelling Fellow.
Watch them all on YouTube.