Boston’s power constituencies typically hail from the fields of construction and real estate, firefighting, and law. Poets and painters do not usually register as table-thumping political forces with which to be reckoned.
But the first wide-open mayor’s race in three decades has motivated Boston’s arts community to form a political movement unlike any in recent memory. Arts organizations, youth arts groups, and cultural institutions large and small have banded together to compel the candidates for mayor to articulate a vision for the arts in Boston.
The Create the Vote Boston 2013 coalition also has been unusually frank about saying that the outgoing mayor never really had such a vision. While activists considered Mayor Thomas M. Menino a supporter of the arts during his 20 years in office, they didn’t see him a champion.
“He’s done some great things,” said Matt Wilson, executive director of MassCreative. “But when you start to compare it to other cities and think about what he could have done? More could be done.”
To that end, the coalition plans to grill the candidates for mayor Monday night at a forum at the Paramount Theatre, expected to draw hundreds.
The forum, to be moderated by Joyce Kulhawik, president of the Boston Theater Critics Association, was nearly derailed when the Boston Herald booked a televised debate for the same night. But the newly mobilized arts activists surprised themselves by winning their first showdown. After arts supporters fanned outrage on social media, the candidates stood by the arts community, and the Herald postponed the start time for its debate.
“I’ve been in Boston long enough to know I DON’T want a bad review from @JoyceKulhawik,” one candidate, state Representative Martin J. Walsh, explained on Twitter. Kulhawik was a longtime arts critic for WBZ-TV.
It was an unusual show of prowess for a constituency unaccustomed to having any muscle to flex.
“The community is pretty timid,” said Wilson, who described the Boston arts world as “on the defensive.’’
Wilson himself has no experience in the arts, but three decades of experience in political organizing. He has worked in the environmental movement, helping neighborhoods mobilize politically, as a national field staff director for MoveOn.org , and as campaign director for Health Care For All, an advocacy organization.
Now, Wilson is trying to teach creative people — who are not always known for their smooth group dynamics — to band together, think politically, and exert some influence, using their power in numbers. Create the Vote brings together iconic institutions like WBUR, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with lesser-known initiatives like ZUMIX, an East Boston music and radio program for youth, the Musikavanhu Arts Gallery in Dudley, and the Genki Spark, an Asian women’s performance group.
While starving artists may not seem like a powerful constituency, they do have benefactors: The coalition was formed by MassCreative, an organization created with funding from the Boston Foundation and the Barr Foundation. Arts groups also have audiences at their disposal to encourage to rally around their causes. Soon, theatergoers will be encouraged to finish their applause with text messages to politicians, Wilson said.
The group hopes to extend its political drive into the race for governor next year, encouraging candidates to make arts and cultural programming a priority and to increase funding for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the state agency that provides grants to individual institutions and artists.
With a dozen candidates vying for votes in the Sept. 24 preliminary election for mayor, the coalition has compelled many to sit down for interviews and to detail their commitments to cultural programming in exhaustive questionnaires — eliciting some creative answers.
John Barros proposed expanding arts in schools and creating the city staff position of “curator-in-chief.” City Councilor John Connolly wants to work with landlords to make vacant space available for pop-up galleries.
Bill Walczak said he would create a Commission for the Arts and Cultural Affairs. City Councilor Mike Ross has proposed requiring developers to spend 1 percent of their construction costs on arts funding.
The questionnaires and interviews also gave the candidates a chance to wax poetic about their own creativity: Barros is a drummer. Ross has a painting hanging in Tasty Burger, a Fenway restaurant. Walczak built a black box theater in the Codman Square Health Center and partnered with the Huntington Theatre Company on an annual summer Shakespeare production. Connolly points to lasting impressions of the bands and poetry he enjoyed while living and teaching on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1990s — experiences that taught him not just about urban struggles, but also, “quite frankly, why it is cool to live in the city.”
That intangible is what Create the Vote wants the next mayor to consider as he or she sets a platform and assembles a budget. The coalition argues that galleries, festivals, and theater infuse Boston with a vitality that makes it a draw for tourists and area residents alike.
“This is why we live here. This is what makes Boston and Massachusetts special,” said Wilson.
MassCreative is lobbying for funding for theater and cultural projects not just as a quality of life issue, but as an economic driver, attracting tourists and suburbanites downtown, and unifying people within the neighborhoods. It is also trying to change the views of voters who may consider the arts “nice, but not necessary,” and to get voters to commit to judge a candidate in part on commitment to the arts.
Boston’s financial support for the arts pales in comparison to other cities, activists say.
New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs spends about $18 per capita on the arts. Boston’s Office of Arts, Tourism, and Special Events spends roughly $2.5.
But the effort is “not just about the money,” said Gary Dunning, president and chief executive of the Celebrity Series of performances and a member of the team coordinating the forum. “It’s the notion that an arts policy is absolutely integral to the fabric of the city – from housing policy to transportation policy to education policy,” he said.
Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Menino, argued that the mayor has been a loyal supporter of the arts across the city and downtown.
“It’s unfortunate that they don’t see the real work that has been done,” she said.
Joyce noted his work in restoring Theater District halls and the Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner and support for shows across the city, including the current installation of globes as public art along the Boston Common.
These efforts and arts in the neighborhood reflect the mayor’s commitment to the arts, as well as his belief that “art is everywhere, for everyone, and in every corner of the city,” Joyce said.
While Create the Vote acknowledges those efforts, the coalition hopes to prod the next mayor to modernize the city’s approach with a more cohesive strategy, more funding, and a broader vision.
“What we had is a mayor who had a host of challenges and interests,” said Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, one of the Create the Vote organizations. “We have a lot to be grateful for. The new mayor is going to go into office in the 21st century. This is a different moment and it requires some new approaches, new ambitions for this city.”