The president of Berklee College of Music wants a Boston version of South By Southwest, the sprawling music festival that draws thousands of people to Austin, Texas. A Boston University film professor wishes City Hall would answer phone calls from students applying for shooting permits. The Museum of Fine Arts director just wants to meet for coffee. He’s fine with Dunkin Donuts.
Martin J. Walsh won’t take office as Boston’s mayor until Jan. 6, but cultural leaders are eager to get started on a vision he outlined during the campaign, one in which “artists will have a true partner and advocate in City Hall.”
In a recent interview, Walsh confirmed two key promises that form the cornerstone for his arts vision. The first: to create a Cabinet-level commissioner for arts and culture. The second: to devote a set percentage of city revenue to the arts — something done in other cities, but never in Boston.
Josiah Spaulding Jr., chief executive of the Citi Performing Arts Center, has been particularly encouraged by that second promise. He’s been pushing for a dedicated revenue stream for years.
“I don’t know where the money is going to come from, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but we need to have that, and he’s agreed to make that a big push,” said Spaulding. “I think Marty’s heart is absolutely in the right place, and he wants to build upon what Mayor Menino has done.”
Other cultural leaders are impressed by Walsh’s commitment.
“He put out a bold vision for what arts and culture can bring to the city,” said Matt Wilson, executive director of MASSCreative, an arts advocacy group that gained prominence during the campaign. “So we expect him to really use the arts, cultural, and creative community as a tool to build a more vibrant and connected Boston.”
Wednesday night at Symphony Hall, Walsh faced an easy crowd, dropping into the opening of the Holiday Pops season to narrate “Twas The Night Before Christmas.”
He watched the first part of the concert with friends and his longtime partner, Lorrie Higgins, then headed backstage at intermission to get ready for his part. There he learned that, for an incoming mayor, not even a simple greeting can take place without a plug.
In the dressing room, he met Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s managing director, alongside Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, who playfully told Walsh of the great wish of his wife, Emiley: Bring the Olympics to Boston.
“It’d be nice if we could pull it off,” said Walsh.
Then the mayor-elect asked for a moment away from the TV cameras so he could go over cues with Lockhart. He wanted the performance to go off without a hitch.
Off stage Walsh has been working to add arts and cultural leaders to his transition effort. He’s installed arts publicist and record label executive Joyce Linehan, one of his closest campaign confidantes, to a top post in his transition team.
This week, Walsh added 21 people to a working group meant to focus on arts and culture. The group, led by Gary Dunning, executive director of Celebrity Series of Boston, and Cuong Hoang, director of programs at Mott Philanthropic, ranges from top officials at the Children’s Museum and Boston Symphony Orchestra to studio managers and art teachers.
In the interview, Walsh emphasized the importance of a Cabinet-level commissioner for arts and culture.
“The first thing I think it means is a real commitment to the arts in Boston,” said Walsh, “from the local artists in the neighborhood to the Museum of Fine Arts and the bigger institutions and somewhere in between. One group of people who have felt they’ve been left kind of out there, in the lurch, is the arts community. We’ve got a lot of great talented people in the city of Boston.”
Walsh doled out few specifics about his plans. How much city revenue will he devote to the arts? Where will the money come from? Walsh said he’s not sure yet. Those answers, he said, will come later.
“I would love to put a percent on it today,” he said, “but we want to wait and see what the budget is like.”
In 2005, City Councilor Michael Ross proposed requiring private developers to put 1 percent of construction costs into a fund to finance public art. Similar programs have long been in place in cities and states across the country. The longest running, in Philadelphia, has led to more than 400 artworks installed in public spaces. Ross’s proposal failed back in 2005. But Walsh said that the economy has improved since then.
“The pot of money comes from potentially some of the developers in the city of Boston who want to invest,” he said.
Walsh wasn’t prepared to mention names of people he would consider for the Cabinet post, though he said he might have news in January. And Dunning, in an interview, said it is too early to talk much about his role.
“I honestly don’t know what’s expected,” Dunning said of the working group, which was scheduled to meet Thursday for the first time.
Mayor Thomas Menino’s tenure marked significant growth in the local arts world, from the revival of the downtown theater district with renovations of the Cutler Majestic Theatre, Opera House, Paramount Theatre, and Modern Theatre, to the construction of the Institute of Contemporary Art, the creation of the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, and expansions of the Museum of Fine Arts and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museums.
Under Menino, a host of arts festivals were launched, most recently Boston Calling and Outside the Box. Menino has been criticized by some, though, for not having a broad-based cultural plan in place.
“Hopefully, that will be part of a new administration,” said Dunning. “There were some terrific accomplishments during the Menino years, but it ended up being more project-based.”
Wilson, one of the few figures who publicly criticized Menino during the campaign, stressed that the mayor could have done a better job championing the arts. He’s encouraged by what he hears from Walsh so far and likes the fact that Linehan remains close to the mayor elect.
Though Linehan said she isn’t interested in a permanent post in the administration, her longtime friendship is bound to have an impact, Wilson said.
“Joyce is a close confidante of the mayor,” said Wilson. “Whether she’s in the administration in a formal way or a confidante in an unofficial way, she will help Marty implement a bold arts program.”
It’s still unclear what shape that program will take. Walsh said he intends to meet with museum leaders about the city’s much-criticized Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, known as PILOT, which asks major nonprofit institutions to voluntarily pay the city an annual fee. Some arts institutions have protested the idea, saying that the city should instead be offering funding for nonprofits.
“We’re going to keep the PILOT program,” said Walsh. “I’m not sure if we’re giong to keep it exactly as it is today.”
Malcolm Rogers, the MFA’s director and one of the loudest critics of the PILOT program, said he has already asked Walsh to meet him for breakfast.
“I’m going to sit down and talk with him,” said Walsh. “If some of these institutions get involved in schools and help me create arts programs in Boston, we’re going to look at [their PILOT fees].”
At a recent forum on the arts, Berklee president Roger Brown talked up the South By Southwest idea. Rob Orchard, ArtsEmerson’s executive director, said he was eager to find out how the city might make it easier to allow artists to use spaces that Boston owns but doesn’t use. “That would have a dramatic effect on the landscape,” he said.
And Charles Merzbacher, the BU film professor, said he hoped the new administration would move swiftly. “If there’s a word for Mayor Walsh, it’s urgency,” he said.
“What would I like him to do?” said artist Gabrielle Schaffner, executive director of the Fort Point Arts Community. “A lot.”
Just recently, Schaffner got a call from Linehan asking her to join the 21-member arts and culture working group. It sounded like a good start.
Geoff Edgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.