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Let’s face it, naysaying is baked into the Boston temperament. A dubious gift from the Puritans, perhaps.
What makes the arts so vital is that they counter our kneejerk “No” by speaking to the part of us that wants to say “Yes.”
Yes, I recognize that the pursuit of meaning is at least as important as the pursuit of happiness, and the arts are uniquely equipped to provide both. Yes, I will brave traffic that rivals the torments of Sisyphus in order to attend a play or concert. Yes, I acknowledge there are things out in the world that I need to experience, and I am willing to experience those things in the company of strangers.
But for the past year, that spirit of affirmation has given way to negation. No live theater. No ballet. No symphonies, opera, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, or folk. To all of it the coronavirus has delivered an implacable, non-negotiable “No.”
Now, an end to this protracted intermission and a return to life — for the arts and for us — is finally in sight. We can look forward with more confidence to that exhilarating moment when performances of all sorts will start happening all around Boston, will once again be the pulsing soundtrack of the city within the city.
Surely a full year of you-don’t-know-what-you’ve-got-till-it’s-gone deprivation has renewed our appreciation for the arts, taught us not to take them for granted, and made us ready to make a collective statement about how much they matter to us, right? Having seen the arts teeter on the brink of the financial abyss, state and local policymakers will take immediate steps to put the cultural sector on more solid ground, right?
Well, you’d certainly think so. But the track record is not terribly encouraging.
For as long as I can remember, sports franchises, tech companies, financial services firms, and pharmaceutical outfits have only had to say “Jump!” and the response from elected officials has been an eager chorus of “How high?”
Yet, curiously for a state whose capital fancies itself the “Athens of America,” the arts have seldom enjoyed that kind of ardent solicitude from policymakers in Massachusetts.
It’s time that they do, because 12 months of coronavirus have revealed a wobbly cultural infrastructure that might not survive another public-health emergency. Now is the moment for the arts to, once and for all, make their case for indispensability — and I think it’s a compelling one. After all, how many industries can be considered central to both the economic and psychological recovery from the pandemic?
Massachusetts desperately needs an infusion of jobs and revenue, and that the arts sector can supply. Moreover, the arts have the capacity to nourish our battered psyches, while also satisfying the ravenous, pent-up hunger for community engendered by a year of pandemic-imposed isolation.
And when it comes to the racial reckoning that has dovetailed with the pandemic, creative artists have crucial roles to play. As was demonstrated by powerful Boston productions of works like Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” and Aleshea Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” playwrights can explore the kind of racial inequality that was further laid bare by the pandemic, and then capture the human cost of that inequality in dramatic form.
The broad goal of building a sustainable cultural sector starts with a recognition of the highly unusual variety of functions performed by arts organizations: They enrich our individual lives; they are at the heart, or should be, of our collective civic identity; and they are important economic forces in their respective communities.
As it happens, this year’s wide-open mayoral race — a political rarity in Boston — offers the cultural sector a golden opportunity to flex a little political muscle. At this early stage of the race, all of the candidates are looking for a way to stand out, and their agendas are still evolving. The cultural sector needs to ensure that the arts occupy a prominent place in the campaign conversation. Being the Arts Candidate would seem to be a pretty potent political brand.
But the mayoral candidates must be pressed to go beyond bromides about how much they value the arts and present detailed to-do plans for the cultural sector, whether in terms of direct funding to organizations or support for affordable living and work spaces for cash-strapped artists. They should also be asked a pointed and pertinent question: How often do you go to see live performances?
You can’t swing a fungo bat at Fenway Park without hitting a politician, but after 10 years of covering theater I can tell you that elected leaders are mighty scarce on opening night. Does their absenteeism make the arts less of a priority at budget appropriation time? Stands to reason that it does.
That can’t continue, because the arts sector is hurting badly. Cultural nonprofits have lost nearly $590 million in revenue since March 2020, according to a just-released report by the Mass Cultural Council, the state’s principal funding arm for arts and culture organizations. That includes losses of more than $420 million for organizations in Greater Boston ― and most of them were operating on shoestring budgets to begin with.
Studies by the Boston Foundation have found that small and medium-size arts institutions in Boston receive far less public funding than their peers in other US cities, and the situation is similar in other communities across Massachusetts. Further exacerbating the impact of inadequate public funding is the fact that financial support from private foundations tends to flow to larger cultural organizations rather than the smaller ones that really need it.
Here, it’s important to note two things: First, small and mid-size organizations are the lifeblood of the arts community, the places where most of the jobs that are generated are local, in contrast to, say, touring stage productions. And second, it is these small- and mid-size organizations — not the deep-pocketed likes of the BSO or the MFA or the ART — whose fates will still be up in the air after the Great Reopening.
Indeed, some local arts professionals have told me that the year after venues reopen could be filled with jeopardy. Why? Because once performances resume, with all the attendant production costs, patrons might still be unwilling to return in sufficient numbers. That would be a dagger in the heart of small- and medium-size institutions, since they are perilously dependent on ticket sales, along with private contributions.
On the state level, the pandemic has theoretically opened the door wide to sectors that can quickly generate jobs and revenue, so the arts should position themselves as essential to the economic recovery of Massachusetts. This has the virtue of being true.
To underscore that truth, a few salient facts that don’t get nearly enough attention should be noisily trumpeted on Beacon Hill, to wit: Before the pandemic hit, cultural nonprofit organizations supported by the Mass Cultural Council generated $2.3 billion in economic activity across Massachusetts, supported more than 71,000 full-time-equivalent jobs, and produced nearly $130 million in revenues for the state each year, according to the new report from the Council.
Another datum that would get the attention of the solons is this: More than 21 million people attend cultural events each year in Greater Boston — which is four times the combined annual attendance at Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins games, according to a 2019 survey by ArtsBoston.
Clearly, all of that entitles the arts to demand a much bigger place at the table. Since we’re on the subject of tables and demands, it should be noted that the restaurant industry has been quite skillful at keeping its need for assistance in the public spotlight throughout the pandemic. At times, you could be forgiven for thinking that even laser-tag emporiums were a higher priority than the arts.
This is not to say that advocacy groups like MASSCreative, as well as the Mass Cultural Council, have not labored valiantly throughout the pandemic. They have. The communication skills of new Council executive director Michael J. Bobbitt could be an important asset for the arts in the tricky days ahead — and Bobbitt will need to put those skills to work on behalf of the Council itself, since Governor Charlie Baker’s budget recommendation for the next fiscal year calls for a cut of more than 10 percent in its budget.
But the cultural sector overall needs to do a better job of telling its own story.
It’s always puzzled me that creative artists, who after all are professional storytellers and often create work collaboratively, don’t more fully utilize those talents on their own behalf. Cultural organizations need to get more politically savvy, get out of their individual silos, and resolve to think and act collectively from here on out.
The mission should be to convince skeptics on Beacon Hill and in City Hall that the creative economy is crucial and the arts are foundational, not just a boutique activity — in other words, that they belong squarely in the category of “Need-to-have,” not just “Nice-to-have.”
Of course, the citizens of Massachusetts will have final say over which of those categories the arts occupy, post-pandemic. Much depends on whether the reopening of theaters and concert halls and museums is seen as a time not just of recovery, but of discovery.
To the question “Are the arts worth fighting for?” — a question that may never have been more urgent — will our answer be “Yes”? Or “No”?