Less than two months after taking office, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu can add this to her list of historic “firsts”: Earlier this month, she became, perhaps, the city’s first leader to install a piano in the mayoral chambers.
The black, city-owned upright is not some aspirational showpiece meant to signal the role culture will play at City Hall. Its purpose is more specific: The piano is for Mayor Wu, a classically trained musician, to play — just as she’s done her entire life.
“My first love is piano,” said Wu, who during the campaign would focus her mind before debates by playing piano. “It’s a very key part of who I am, and how I stay centered as a human being.”
The arts played a foundational role during Wu’s childhood in Chicago, where she often accompanied her mother, a talented singer, on the piano. She earned extra cash playing holiday parties as a teenager, and Wu, who last month became the city’s first Asian American woman elected mayor, still counts a high school performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as among her proudest achievements.
Now, as the the city’s cultural sector stares down its bleakest season, Wu is drawing on these formative experiences to begin setting her administration’s arts and culture agenda, harnessing the levers of City Hall to jumpstart Boston’s cultural recovery and, she hopes, refashion the sector to be more accessible.
The stakes could not be higher: Soaring property values have uprooted many artists. Boston’s limited ability to raise revenue means its cultural nonprofits receive significantly less local government support than in peer cities, which forces many groups to scramble for funding and scant rehearsal spaces.
Meanwhile, city schools often rely on nonprofits for arts education, while high admission prices keep the city’s most cherished cultural institutions out of reach for some average Bostonians.
And that was before the sector-leveling pandemic, which in its first year caused at least $425 million in lost revenue across Greater Boston’s cultural economy, according to data collected by the Mass Cultural Council.
Now, as the city braces for the next pandemic wave, Wu said the cultural sector’s fate is bound to the city’s broader recovery.
“It’s impossible to separate out ‘arts issues’ and ‘arts equity’ issues, from the stabilization of our communities,” said Wu. “We need to keep artists and creatives in Boston, and that means — in our housing policy, in child care, and the ability for working families to thrive in the city — that it directly impacts whether those who are creating can remain in Boston.”
She added that the pandemic — and the billions in federal aid now coming to the state — also presents a unique opportunity for Boston to make transformational investments that the city can build as it shifts to “a new normal of what it means to partner with, invest in, and elevate our arts sector.”
Ultimately, she said, Boston needs to establish a sustainable revenue source to help support the arts, an ambition that has eluded previous administrations.
That’s in part because state law gives Boston little authority when it comes to raising local revenue, making the city heavily dependent on property taxes.
But Wu said she was undaunted.
“There are multiple pathways of collaborating with state partners,” said Wu. “This moment, in some ways, is an incredibly unusual and urgent opportunity.”
(So far, the arts community has been disappointed by its allotment of federal relief funds, receiving a small fraction of the $575 million suggested by a special legislative commission over the summer.)
Wu added that one arrangement she wants to revisit is the city’s Payment in Lieu of Tax (PILOT) program, which seeks voluntary payments from tax-exempt nonprofit landholders to help pay for city services. Former Mayor Thomas Menino expanded PILOT to include seven of the city’s largest cultural nonprofits, which in some years has meant the city takes in more from the cultural sector than it disburses in grants.
“I would suggest excluding our arts and cultural organizations from the PILOT program and working for direct free days or access,” said Wu, who described how free days at the Art Institute of Chicago had been important to her as the child of immigrants. “That was the only way we would have been able to afford to go. It was also an important way to feel rooted and seen and welcomed in the community.”
Many of the city’s larger cultural institutions already offer free or reduced admission for specific populations — considered “community benefits” that can be subtracted from PILOT payments.
“If PILOT were eliminated, yes, that could free up resources that could go to direct benefits,” said Peggy Fogelman, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Nevertheless, she said, the museum would require additional support to expand its free or reduced admission programs more dramatically.
“We are very committed to being accessible, but to increase that accessibility, we do need the financial support of the city or the state” said Fogelman, who added that it cost the museum $74 per visitor before the pandemic. “What I think is not widely known is the degree to which we subsidize every visit.”
Wu said access to some of the city’s cultural institutions could be folded into a municipal ID, an idea she has long championed that would provide identification for Bostonians who struggle to obtain a government-issued ID, such as undocumented immigrants and those experiencing homelessness.
“It is always an important conversation about closing gaps for community members who have barriers to accessing formal government,” said Wu. “But there’s also just as powerful a motive for [a] municipal ID in creating a cultural pass to all of the amenities in our city.”
At the other end of the economic spectrum, the pandemic has fundamentally transformed the nature of many white collar jobs, unyoking work from the physical office. In that respect, Wu said, Boston needs to rethink how the arts can boost the city’s “value proposition” by integrating cultural offerings more fully into each of the city’s neighborhoods.
“Boston has all the pieces,” she said. “Arts and culture can bring people together, whether it is supporting performances, pop-up events, or public art in general.”
Even so, steep challenges remain for many of the city’s smaller cultural nonprofits, the overwhelming majority of which lack dedicated facilities. Most cannot afford to hire a dedicated fund-raiser either, making it challenging to achieve financial stability.
Craig Coogan, executive director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, said City Hall has a big role to play in helping these groups, in part by working with private foundations and others to build funding coalitions.
“City Hall is in a unique position to be able to convene,” said Coogan, whose chorus hasn’t performed in two years. “We don’t have to look to City Hall to write the big and the only check.”
Back at City Hall, Wu said she’s been meeting with Boston Public Schools superintendent Brenda Cassellius about creating a quality guarantee for city schools that would include arts education as part of the basic curriculum.
“This needs to be part of the basic necessities that make up our whole child education,” said Wu, standing by the piano where she’d just played Franz Liszt’s challenging “Un Sospiro.”
She’s not had a lot of time to practice lately, but she hopes in the future to perform with one of the city’s youth orchestras, she said.
“Our young people are brilliant, they’re resilient, they represent every culture in our city,” Wu said. “I want to find a way.”