There may be no accounting for taste, but that won’t stop Mayor Martin J. Walsh from trying.
Making good on his campaign promise that the arts will play an integral role in Boston’s future, Walsh is set to announce Thursday the details of his long-anticipated cultural planning initiative, an 18-month survey that will send teams of volunteers deep into the city’s neighborhoods, interviewing thousands of individuals and groups to try to quantify and define what Bostonians want when it comes to the city’s cultural life.
The sprawling conversation, known officially as “Boston Creates,” will stretch from Brighton to South Boston, Charlestown to Hyde Park, resulting in a plan that outlines Boston’s cultural priorities and identifies ways the government can enhance the city’s creative life, setting an agenda for the next decade and beyond.
“We take this very seriously,” said Walsh during an interview earlier this week. “There are a lot of individual cultural plans in the city, but there’s no one plan that helps move the arts and culture community forward as a whole. Rather than operating in silos and trying to piece the pieces together, this plan will help us move the entire agenda forward in an even more positive way.”
Spearheading the effort will be Julie Burros, Walsh’s new chief of arts and culture, a cabinet-level position. Burros, who helped create a similar plan in Chicago, said the process will take a broad view of creativity, asking everyone from knitting groups and cooking classes to theater troupes and arts collectives to identify what they see as the city’s cultural assets and needs.
“We’re asking generally big questions: What’s your vision for arts and culture? What do you see as the needs? How do we get there?” she said. “Our process really recognizes that arts and culture is very multifaceted. It’s not only the professional fine arts, but also the informal arts, the personal arts.”
Burros added that the final version of the plan, which the city expects to release in June 2016, will seek to answer these large questions by synthesizing thousands of tiny data points — interviews, cultural venues, funding needs, among others — into a coherent plan for the city to help support its cultural sector.
“It’s a very granular look at what neighborhoods consider to be important parts of culture in their everyday life,” she said. “We’ll be creating a dataset from that exercise, so we can understand how different people define arts and culture, what’s out there, and what are some of the hidden assets that we maybe have overlooked or are a little behind closed doors.”
The project’s $1.4 million budget is being provided in equal parts by the Barr Foundation and the Klarman Family Foundation.
“I see Barr’s role as helping to set the table and not necessarily set the agenda,” said James Canales, president of the Barr Foundation, which sought early to infuse the idea of cultural planning into the 2013 mayoral race. “We know Boston is a world-class city, and we talk a lot about the world-class educational and medical and arts institutions, but the notion of taking a broad, inclusive look at the role of arts and culture to create the kind of vibrant, engaged community we seek is something we’re really excited about supporting.”
At a time when cities are competing to attract and retain a skilled 21st-century workforce, urban planners increasingly view a city’s vibrant cultural life as key to being economically competitive, luring new companies, retaining top talent, and providing a higher quality of life.
“I want to continue to have Boston be innovative and leverage the power of creativity and new ideas to address issues around equity and social well-being and the gaps that are out there,” said Walsh. “To stay competitive, we have to make some investment in this area.”
The city has hired the Cultural Planning Group, a national consulting firm that has worked on similar plans for other cities, to help manage the process, as well as the Cambridge-based firm WolfBrown. The consultants have designed a process using a framework they term “creative capital.”
“Creative capital is the belief that creativity and creative culture are an incredible shared asset, like clean drinking water, or a skilled workforce,” said the Cultural Planning Group’s David Plettner-Saunders. “One way of stating the goal of Boston Creates is to understand what that creative capital is in Boston, and how do we increase or enhance it.”
For starters, the city is launching a homepage for the plan (www.bostoncreates.org), where people can nominate themselves or others to be on a volunteer leadership council or join 16 community-engagement teams. Following a town hall-style meeting on June 2 at English High School, these teams will fan out into 16 neighborhoods, where for the next four months they will interview individuals and groups, gathering information and mapping the city’s “cultural assets” — everything from murals and festivals to artists and arts organizations.
Burros promises there will be an online component as well (hashtag: #BostonCreates), where individuals can map cultural assets on their own.
“It’s going to be a busy summer,” she said, noting that she wanted to reach beyond the “usual suspects” who often show up for community or arts and culture meetings.
Come September, they will begin crunching the numbers. “We use tools to go through the data to look for language and consistency, and in our experience we find that themes emerge.” said Martin Cohen of the Cultural Planning Group. “It’s not like we’re going to get 20,000 different answers. I suspect we’ll get 20 or 10 themes, and out of that we’ll get a sense what people are telling us they value.”
Burros expects to release a draft plan in January 2016, followed shortly by a second town hall-style meeting. There will then be a public feedback period before the city releases its final plan on June 17, 2016, coinciding with the Americans for the Arts convention, which is being held next year in Boston for the first time.
“We’ll have our national peers in Boston, so for us it’s a great moment to be releasing the plan,” she said.
Burros said she expected a few themes to emerge: better funding for arts education in schools, increased availability of space and facilities for the arts, and more cultural grant funding. (To that end, the mayor’s proposed 2015 budget would increase arts and culture funding by 33 percent.)
Still, Burros said the process could yield unexpected results. “I want to leave room, “ she said. “I don’t want to have too many set expectations.”
Some of the largest unknowns are how much the plan will cost to enact and how it will be funded. Burros said part of the challenge will be to identify a sustainable funding stream, which she said would likely consist of both public and private sources.
“The yardstick for success is a plan than can be implemented,” she said. “It’s not so useful for me to have a plan than I can’t implement.”