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Adrian Walker

Give Outside the Box festival another go

For sheer discomfort, hell probably had nothing on the Boston Common on Friday afternoon, as the temperature hit record levels. So why did Ted Cutler seem so pleased to be there?

“It all came together and I couldn’t be happier,” Cutler said “This was a great gift to the city of Boston.”

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The 83-year-old Cutler was the mastermind and sole financier of “Outside the Box,” the free nine-day music festival on the Common and City Hall Plaza that wrapped up Sunday. When we spoke, he was surveying his project from a personalized golf cart. On the main stage, a troupe of Cambodian dancers was performing. Not far away a group of kids was being entertained by a juggler.

While the accounting for the festival is not yet complete, Cutler said the price tag could rise as high as $6 million. He said it like he was talking about buying a suit.

Cutler is a longtime philanthropist and civic activist; for nine years he chaired the board of directors of Emerson College. But he also talks like a man on a mission — in this case a mission to ease the pain of the Marathon bombing by hosting a festival on the Common.

“After the terrible thing that happened in our city there was a dark cloud,” he said. “This is lifting that cloud.”

Cutler said he didn’t intend, at the outset, to foot the entire bill himself. He said that after the Marathon attack, financial support went instead to OneFund Boston, and rightly so. His largesse is clearly an attempt to leave a legacy, which he couched in terms of bringing art to the masses.

“What bothers me is that a lot of people can’t afford $200 tickets, they can’t afford to go to the theater,” he said. “If they can’t afford it, we should give it to them. We opened it up to everybody and everybody is just loving it.”

The festival lineup was extensive and eclectic. It included everything from the Lemonheads to Taj Mahal to a Ming Tsai cooking demonstration— and that was just Saturday afternoon.

“There’s something for everybody,” Cutler said. “Three years from now, you are going to see artists from all over the world wanting to play Boston.”

Turns out, Cutler’s approach to planning a festival isn’t for everybody. The artistic director, Sherrie Johnson, quit during the planning stages, reportedly after being tuned out. Several luminaries in the arts community complained that they had been listed as festival board members without their consent. A lot of the area’s arts community, in fact, backed away.

Some have complained that the festival was planned in haste, and that organizing a world-class arts festival takes more time — and more voices — than this one received. It’s probably fair to say that Cutler is more salesman than creative visionary. You wouldn’t want him in charge of the American Repertory Theatre.

Still, the just-concluded festival was an intriguing look at what a more inspired use of Boston’s public spaces could bring. While City Hall Plaza has long been home to the occasional free concert, the Common has been treated like fragile territory that can’t withstand a lot of visitors. Casey Sherman, one of Cutler’s publicists, offered one recent example of that lamentable attitude — the case of a downtown resident who bragged about shutting down a group of kids who had taken to playing soccer there.

“I asked him, ‘Are you proud of that?’ ” Sherman said. Apparently, he was.

Protecting the Common — if it even needs protecting — shouldn’t mean shutting it down for major events. Put that on the agenda of our new mayor.

Certainly, the future of Outside the Box needs to include more voices. No one person could possibly have all the right answers for such a sprawling and ambitious event. But it deserves to have a future, and Cutler vows that it will.

“I want to do it again,” he said. “I think this is great for the city.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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