In our global economy, the arts world has become crucial for cities — a wellspring for ideas, a magnet for residents and tourists, and a key indicator of the quality of life that helps employers attract and keep young talent.
How does Boston stack up? Not well. We’ve suffocated our street arts scene and allowed once-vibrant artists’ enclaves, like Fort Point Channel and the studios that begat “SoWa,” to be nearly extinguished by gentrification. While Boston carefully preserves its museums and concert halls, cities with less depth in the arts have launched major festivals, such as Austin’s South by Southwest, the Sundance Film Festival, and Art Basel Miami.
Boston’s new mayor has an opportunity to reverse decades of indifference to the arts with the stroke of a pen. You could call it the stART Boston platform: a low-cost program that addresses four key areas that are holding Boston artists back.
Housing: Mayor Thomas M. Menino has called for adding 30,000 units of new housing, and the incoming mayor should follow his lead. At least 10 percent of that housing should be designated as live/work space for artists and designed with their needs in mind.
Public art: Street installations are where art touches the lives of everyday citizens, but artists who want to create public works are often stymied. An entire organization, the Boston Art in Public Places (APP) Lab, has recently formed to press for change. The mayor should immediately adopt one of APP Lab’s recommendations by installing dozens of “art pads” in unused corners and lots across the city. These spaces would make it easy and legal for artists to create rotating temporary installations, giving Boston an injection of creativity that could become a city hallmark.
Music: With an abundance of talented musicians and world-famous music schools like Berklee and the New England Conservatory, Boston is a powerhouse music scene lacking a catalyst. What would pull it together? Designating an area in the Innovation District as a live music zone where music is not only allowed but encouraged, indoors and out. Like Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, Broadway in Nashville, or Sixth Street in Austin, it would galvanize the local scene and pump tourist dollars into the economy.
Permits: Any effort to boost the arts must include an overhaul of our arcane permitting system, which presents numerous roadblocks to festival organizers, street artists, and other creative entrepreneurs.
These four changes won’t single-handedly turn Boston back into the Athens of America, but they’re a major step: By signaling to artists that the city is ready to embrace them, the city will also signal that Boston is ready to play on the global stage.