Michael J. Bobbitt, the first Black artistic director at Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre, where he established himself as a dynamic force brimming with ideas after his arrival less than 17 months ago, was named Friday as executive director of the Mass Cultural Council.
That makes Bobbitt the highest-ranking cultural official in Massachusetts at a time when arts organizations from Boston to the Berkshires are fighting for their lives, their finances decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, while they are also trying to dismantle institutional structures rooted in systemic racism.
“The weight and the importance of that, I don’t take lightly,” Bobbitt, 48, said of his new role in an interview with the Globe over Zoom.
Bobbitt, who a council spokesperson said is believed to be the group’s first Black executive director, has spoken often and urgently about how theaters need to operate as antiracist organizations. He has contended that all theater operations — productions, staffing, board membership, audience development — have to be seen through a “race equity lens.” Bobbitt made clear that will be a priority in his new, larger role as well.
“The racial reckoning and recovery from COVID: That is what everyone should be focused on,” he said. “I will advocate for more resources to help them recover fast. Certainly race equity is something I want to highlight.”
In an e-mail Friday, he reinforced that message. While diversity, equity, inclusion, and access are pillars of the council’s strategic plan, with guidelines governing each of its two dozen grant programs, Bobbitt signaled that he wants to go further, writing: “I’m excited to meet with the program staff and do a deep dive on all of the existing programs and services, and, once I am fully orientated, take a look at how we can further equity and access goals.”
Bobbitt’s new role, which he will assume Feb. 1 after winning unanimous approval of the council’s governing board Friday, will be a big step up for the current head of a midsize suburban theater with a budget of less than $2 million. The Mass Cultural Council is an independent state agency that administers more than $16 million in grants each year — out of a total budget of $18.2 million — to hundreds of nonprofit arts organizations, artists, scholars, and scientists across the state. In addition, at the request of Governor Charlie Baker, the council is currently administering $10 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds.
The cultural sector is a key contributor to the state economy but is not always perceived as such by policymakers or the general public. Bobbitt’s considerable communication skills could be an asset in telling a compelling story about the economic centrality of the arts, whether in one-on-one conversations with legislators or in public forums. “We put so much money back into the economy,” he noted. “The arts and culture are a big part of how a municipality can really thrive.”
Still, navigating the notoriously insular culture of Beacon Hill may be no easy task for a relative newcomer — Bobbitt came to New Rep from Maryland, where he had run an award-winning children’s theater for more than a decade — who lacks a web of longstanding relationships with lawmakers.
“Certainly I have a lot of homework to do,” Bobbitt acknowledged during the Zoom interview. “That is going to be my first task, getting to know Massachusetts legislators.”
Bobbitt will succeed Anita Walker, who retired in June after 13 years as the head of the council. Nearly 90 people applied for the position of executive director, including a couple of international candidates, but the choice was clear, according to Marc Carroll, vice chair of the council and a member of the search committee. Carroll cited Bobbitt’s “visionary leadership” and the breadth of his cultural knowledge.
Indeed, Bobbitt brings a remarkably varied cultural resume to his new job. In addition to being a theater executive, he is a director, choreographer, and playwright who was formerly a dancer, having trained at the Washington Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem. Bobbitt also played classical trumpet, and went to college on a trumpet scholarship.
“He’s a practicing artist,” noted Carroll. “He’s able to talk the talk when it comes to cultural organizations.”
When the coronavirus pandemic shuttered theaters in March, Bobbitt threw himself into devising ways for New Rep to cope with unprecedented financial and creative challenges, such as staging an outdoor “walking play” in Watertown Square about a Black Civil War soldier. During his tenure at New Rep, Bobbitt implemented antiracist policies and made a priority of hiring artists of color. It was only in August 2019 that Bobbitt replaced Jim Petosa as artistic director, and now the theater will be forced to search for a new leader again.
Bobbitt expressed confidence the theater will continue to progress. “It’s very sad to not be there when it happens,” he said. “But as executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, I will get to see it from afar.”