Actors’ Equity Slams New York City’s “Open Culture” Outdoor Performance Plan Over Wage And Safety Issues

Open Culture press event, February 8 AP

Actors’ Equity is warning members that New York City’s just-launched “Open Culture” program of outdoor performances on city streets does not meet the union’s minimum standards for wages or its Covid-19 safety protocols.

“If you are approached to work on a New York City ‘Open Culture’ project, please contact your business representative immediately before accepting,” writes Equity executive director Mary McColl in a letter being sent to members today.

Equity indicated that it will “continue to push New York City” to make changes to Open Culture regarding pay and safety issues.

The city’s Open Culture website indicates that arts organizations eligible for inclusion in the program include theaters, music venues, comedy clubs and others. Filming or recording of the events is permitted without a film permit.

The union’s criticism of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Open Culture plan is a stark contrast to its embrace of the statewide NY PopsUp festival of events that in April will include performances at indoor venues including Broadway theaters.

In her letter, McColl tells Equity members, “I am happy to report that the state arts program, NY PopsUp, has taken important steps forward when it comes to pay and safety plans. Equity staff and your elected leadership have been in ongoing dialogue with state leaders about this program since it was announced in January.

“As a result of those conversations, we have signed an agreement allowing for Equity members to be paid for NY PopsUp performances with a living wage and health and pension payments. The NY PopsUp team has also incorporated our feedback into their safety plan, improving the safety for everyone associated with the project.”

The city’s Open Culture plan, announced by de Blasio at an outdoor press conference on a snowy day in Brooklyn last month, began accepting permit applications on Monday. Under the program, the city has designated about 100 stretches of streets as Open Culture zones, available to arts groups as performance spaces. The arts groups are permitted, but not required, to sell tickets for the events.

But the permit process, Equity charges, “does not require proof that producers pay any wage at all – while explicitly permitting ticket sales and collecting donations.” Writes McColl, “This is disappointing and unfair to the arts workers in our city. It is especially concerning that the city has put forward a plan that does not ensure a safe workplace for workers.”

The Equity letter lists the union’s six specific objections to the Open Culture plan. According to the union:

  • The city permit process does not require that producers pay a living wage;
  • The city permit process does not require producers provide proof of workers’ compensation insurance;
  • The city permit does not require that workers be tested for COVID-19;
  • The city permit does not require performers to be socially distanced;
  • The city permit does not have a formal requirement for a COVID-19 safety officer;
  • The city permit process does not have appropriate safeguards to keep crowds distanced from the workers.

Equity isn’t the first to slam the de Blasio plan. Following the mayor’s press conference last month, which was followed by a video tweet from the mayor’s office showing a dance troupe performing amidst the snow-covered sidewalks, acclaimed guitarist and New York State native Joe Bonamassa responded, “The fact that these folks don’t realize how insulting this is to the hundreds of thousands of dedicated performers and professionals put out of work due to this pandemic is a real glimpse into how they do not value the arts and view it as some sort of ‘hobby’.”


McColl’s letter today made clear that the union approves of the state’s NY PopUps events set to begin some indoor performances throughout New York City and New York State on April 2. Yesterday, Cuomo and NY PopsUp announced that those venues will include select Broadway venues that otherwise remain closed due to the Broadway pandemic shutdown. The 100-day festival, overseen by producers Scott Rudin and Jane Rosenthal, could establish the safety protocols for Broadway’s eventual return.


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