Arts

Cultural leader in Chicago to be Boston arts chief

Burros to draw blueprint, vows a welcoming climate

Mayor Martin J. Walsh has chosen Julie Burros as the city’s new Chief of Arts and Culture.
Kamil Krzaczynski for The Boston Globe
Mayor Martin J. Walsh has chosen Julie Burros as the city’s new Chief of Arts and Culture.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh selected Chicago’s top cultural planner Tuesday as Boston’s first Cabinet-level arts chief in years, a move heralded by the creative community as a huge step toward elevating the role of the arts in the city.

Julie Burros, who will be sworn in as the city’s new chief of arts and culture in December, will create a broad cultural plan for Boston and work to make the city an easier place for artists to live and work.

“What’s really exciting for me is that it’s a city ready to make some changes,” Burros, 49, Chicago’s director of cultural planning since 2000, said in an interview Monday.

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Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers praised Walsh’s choice. “I know a little bit about [Burros’s] work because I’ve been admiring a lot of what’s been happening in Chicago in recent years,’’ he said. “There seems to be a real sense of civic pride and achievement associated with the arts there, and we can absolutely bring that specific quality to Boston.”

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The appointment fulfills a Walsh campaign pledge and followed a six-month national search.

“Whether you’re the Museum of Fine Arts trustee or you’re a local artist in Mattapan, you will have access into city government,” Walsh said in a recent interview. “That’s the biggest change that people are going to feel on the street.”

Other arts leaders endorsed Walsh’s appointment of Burros.

“I think it is a potential game changer for the city,” said ArtsBoston executive director Catherine Peterson. “It embeds somebody who reports directly to the mayor, so the arts are not just at the center of what goes on in our museums and theaters, but at the center of life in the city.”

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David Dower, director of artistic programs at ArtsEmerson, was equally enthusiastic. “We have a new leader in Boston, and it’s spectacular,” Dower said.

The idea behind the appointment is that a strong arts sector yields cultural, economic, and quality-of-life benefits that touch everyone in the city. “This is one area that crosses over almost every single department of city government and every single piece of city life,” said Walsh.

Burros will have a complex set of tasks, Walsh noted.

“One is to develop a Boston cultural master plan, that’s probably the most important, and then a separate piece is creating an innovative financial plan,” the mayor said. “I want this position to be self-sustainable by the end of my first term.”

Walsh promised Burros will have the resources she needs, but said foundation and other outside funding will be integral to long-term success.

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The new Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture will start with a staff of nine and an annual budget of $1.3 million, with most of it going to salaries, officials said. Burros will also oversee the Fund for Boston Neighborhoods, currently at about $1.1 million, funded largely by contributions from organizations and individuals and used for events such as First Night. She will be paid $125,000 a year.

Burros will lead an 18-month cultural planning process, a citywide, foundation-funded effort just getting underway to develop a vision for Boston’s arts sector. She was a leader of a similar process for Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in 2012, which gathered recommendations from across that city in dozens of public meetings. Several Chicago arts programs are underway at least in part as a result of that plan, she said.

Creating a Cabinet-level arts post is a major shift for Boston. Under Mayor Thomas Menino, for the last decade the arts had been handled by the city’s Office of Arts, Tourism, and Special Events. Since Walsh took office, tourism and other functions and staff have been moved under the city’s economic development office.

Burros has worked for the City of Chicago since 1996, beginning in the planning department and moving to the cultural affairs department 15 years ago. Until she arrives in Boston, Walsh’s chief of policy, Joyce Linehan, will continue to oversee arts and cultural issues.

Burros is “very articulate about the impact the arts can have,” Linehan said, “and not just on economic development . . . but in other areas, in dealing with issues of income inequality, which is really important to this particular administration, and in dealing with the arts in an educational setting.”

The nationwide search began in March. Burros interviewed with Walsh and other officials in Boston on Aug. 8. She stayed for the next day’s “civic hackathon,” in which members of the city’s tech community gathered to find ways to make city permitting processes work better for citizens.

“It was cool to see that energy and lots and lots of city people there, [including] several other department heads,” Burros said.

Issues such as streamlined permitting for public performances and film shoots are high on artists’ wish lists everywhere, she said. Her team in Chicago is working with other city departments on a downloadable “tool kit” to help artists and organizations navigate permitting and licensing.

Walsh said Burros’s skill at getting things done within city government was a big factor in her favor. And he added that while there are many talented arts administrators in Boston, it was important to get the best person through a nationwide search.

There are benefits to choosing an outsider, he said.

“It’s an opportunity to bring somebody in who doesn’t have any preconceived decisions on what programs work and what programs don’t,” Walsh said.

Miguel Rodriguez, executive director of Boston Baroque and a member of the search committee, said Burros was the clear first choice: “I was very impressed with her understanding of assessing the needs and the opinions of the different neighborhoods throughout a major city.”

Linehan, Rodriguez, and search committee member Jill Medvedow were among numerous Boston arts figures who met Burros when she spoke at a cultural planning conference last November at the Institute of Contemporary Art, which Medvedow directs. “Julie brings experience and outlook and philosophy and skill that meet our ambition,” Medvedow said.

Burros says she’s an “arts omnivore” who has a small collection of works by Chicago painters and sculptors and attends “a ton” of performances. She has served on the boards of Chicago-area museums and theater companies, but said that to avoid conflicts, she is unlikely to do so in Boston, even if permitted under city ethics policies.

Burros’s departure will be “bittersweet,” says Chicago cultural affairs commissioner Michelle T. Boone. “I think she’ll get a chance to really grow and shine. But yes, it’s going to be a big loss for us.”

More coverage:

Opinion | 7/27: Learn from how Chicago does culture

12/05/13: Cultural leaders happy with Martin Walsh’s rhetoric

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.