Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is the most arts-literate municipal leader in recent memory. After Wu’s historic election, it was probably no coincidence that her victory night party and her public address took place at the venerable Boston Center for the Arts. Still, considering she ran on an impressive set of arts priorities, and knowing she believes arts and culture can contribute significantly to many of the city’s priorities as well as support the immediate work she wants to do, it was disappointing that Wu didn’t mention the arts in that wide-ranging victory speech.
Wu served for six years as a board member and advisor to the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, bringing to the role leadership, sensitivity, and a keen understanding of the power of music. A musician herself, she wowed passersby with her keyboard skills during a Celebrity Series of Boston’s 2016 “Street Pianos” event. On her campaign website, it states “the arts were central to her immigrant family, grounding her in culture, heritage, and community.”
During her tenure on the BGMC board, Wu experienced firsthand the all-consuming job of convincing municipal leaders to make space for the arts. We believe that’s why arts and culture became a key platform in her campaign, including plans to tap the creativity of artists to address pressing social needs and leverage the arts’ ability to support equity and diversity. She ran on finding sustainable and equitable revenue sources for the arts; changing PILOT policies that force arts groups to pay fees that outpace what they receive in city grants; expanding arts access for people who are disenfranchised; addressing chronic space and venue challenges for artists and organizations in the city; and restoring arts programs to Boston Public Schools that have been shown to reduce chronic absence, increase family involvement, and spur young imaginations.
With her many years on the City Council, Wu knows the arts consistently and reliably brought more than $2 billion in economic revenue to Greater Boston each year before COVID hit. As recently as 2019, more people sat in live theater seats every year than attended games from our four major sports teams. And just as many people worked in the Greater Boston arts economy as worked in its retail sector. Impressive economics aside, when the arts are woven into the fabric of a community, that community improves. It becomes more compassionate, more inclusive, more engaged with issues of equity and justice.
Wu noted that the arts are central to our economic recovery. She knows that a strong arts sector raises other businesses with it. Leaders in hospitality, retail, and restaurants will tell you that a strong arts presence helps their businesses thrive. Indeed, the thriving culture of Boston, driven by its vibrant arts scene, is a key reason that companies and the titans of biotech locate here. At ArtsBoston, we like to quote Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce president and CEO James Rooney, who said, “the arts and creativity are critical as the city competes globally for investment and talent.”
To make the arts-generated economic resurgence happen as the mayor envisions it, the city’s arts ecosystem must be shored up after devastating COVID shutdowns and a slower than expected return to pre-pandemic audience levels. With the performing arts community fighting for survival, Wu needs to find ways to increase municipal funding, which is shamefully low in Boston compared with other major cities. She can build on the work of the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, which carved out a place in City Hall to focus on the needs of artists and arts organizations. She can help arts groups recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income and provide them a financial bridge until their earned-income levels return, by advocating for a just portion of the city’s $400 million in COVID funds to be reserved for the arts. The next few months will reveal opportunities for Wu to implement bold, long-term thinking that includes this crucial city sector while tending to its immediate survival needs.
Wu’s decisive victory gives her a definitive thumbs-up from voters on her agenda, and the arts community is firmly on the Wu Train. In her historic role as Boston’s new leader, and to keep Boston a place where people want to live, visit, and work, Wu needs to ensure that her agenda for the arts stays on track.
Catherine Peterson is executive director of ArtsBoston. Craig Coogan is executive director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.