After NYC Went into Culture Shock, She Had to Pick Up Its Pieces

Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment on keeping the arts alive during the shutdown

| 27 Jul 2020 | 09:28

Before COVID hit, there were 80 TV shows and 300 films being made in the city annually. That is just one of many staggering statistics involving all the arts and entertainment that were put on pause in New York City due to the pandemic. “Shortly after the order, it started to become apparent that this may not be a couple of weeks, so how do we support these industries through an indefinite time period? In the creative sector, many businesses live by the day-to-day opening,” explained Anne del Castillo. Part of her multifaceted role as the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment now includes providing guidance and assistance to all our cultural treasures that are struggling during this uncertain time.

The Stuyvesant Town native attributes her deep-rooted love of arts, culture, and entertainment to her Manhattan roots. “From a very young age, I was hanging out on St. Mark’s, going to the Keith Haring pop-up shop and Tower Records,” she fondly recalled. “If you grew up anywhere else, that might not happen.”

In an ongoing effort to keep the arts in the hearts of New Yorkers during this time of COVID-19, her office launched Virtual NYC Curator Collections in partnership with the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and NYC & Company. Through this initiative, the city’s artistic leaders from places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, BAM, Summerstage, and the Apollo Theater handpick local cultural experiences that can be accessed virtually.

Explain what MOME does.

We started out primarily as film and television production and then we took over the operations of NYC Media, which is the city’s municipal broadcast radio and television network. And then about four years ago, our portfolio was expanded to include support for theater, music, advertising, publishing, digital content, and shortly after, when the mayor established the office of nightlife, he put that under us as well. What I think that speaks to is the way that the city truly values the creative sectors of New York and understands the interplay of all of those industries and its connection to nightlife, where a lot of our major cultural movements were born.

You started in 2014 as their director of legal affairs. What does your role as commissioner entail?

I started at the agency as general counsel and then moved into the role of chief operating officer before I was appointed last year as commissioner. My role pre-COVID was understanding the needs of the industries that we serve, so meeting with every stakeholder from media organizations to studios to unions to labels. Ensuring access and opportunities for New Yorkers and that runs the gamut from making sure that they have access to performances and jobs and also, if they’re small business, to growth opportunities. I come from a nonprofit arts administration background in film and television, so I came with some knowledge. But when you really delve into New York City’s creative and cultural scene, it is really rich and diverse and I consider it a blessing to be able to learn about all of the many different facets that make up our creative sectors.

The Made in NY logo we see around the city is connected to your office.

It was a program that was started to highlight film and television production here. We really wanted to raise the profile of film and television production in New York City. Those that spend 75 percent of their budget on below the line costs or 75 percent of their shooting days in New York City are eligible for the mark. It’s been a really great way to showcase the incredible productions that are made here. Since then, it’s been expanded to include digital media.

Describe what work was like in March after we went into lockdown.

When I look back on it, it’s incredible to think of the compressed time frame in which everything happened. Productions were already starting to slow down, and at the time, we thought we were going to maybe shut down for a couple of weeks ...We tried to access the impact so we could inform and make recommendations for stimulus packages and grant programs. We were literally on the phone around the clock with the various industry sectors that we serve and then doing surveys and town hall meetings.

What have conversations been like about Broadway and theaters reopening?

Broadway has determined on its own that it’s not opening until 2021. And then there are other theaters that are trying to figure out what they can do because the smaller companies cannot survive until then. We know that people are really suffering right now. They need to get back to work in some way. So we’re talking to them to try to understand are there streaming performances they can do? Are there small pop-up public space performances they can do? How can the city facilitate that? Is there a place for that in some of our public spaces? So those are some of the things that we are trying to get our heads around and get up quickly. Because every day that they are closed, we really risk losing some of our city’s treasures.

What are some initiatives you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?

We launched the Women’s Fund, which supports women creatives who are at a point in their careers where they can move on to be showrunners, producers, and really take a much more visible leadership role in the industry of music, theater, and film and TV production. In the time of the pandemic, we have seen a lot of creativity as well. Music for the Soul was a partnership with NYC Health + Hospitals and AFM Local 802 where we had free musical performances by New York-based musicians during lunchtime that were streamed on the Health + Hospitals Facebook page so that our healthcare workers could just get a little bit of a break and inspiration. And that did really well and we actually ended up having some really big names sign up to participate.

I saw you did the Sesame Street block co-naming on 63rd and Broadway. That’s so cute!

Ironically, my first official job was for Sesame Workshop as an executive assistant. I was there for their 25th anniversary; I actually have the watch that employees got. When we went to do the 50th anniversary street naming, which I think was my first official event as commissioner, I went up into the offices, and the guard at the desk was the same guy who was there when I worked there. It was so crazy. It really came full circle. It had so much meaning because I was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the place where I got my start.