Boston arts leaders say: Show them the money
Show me the money.
That’s what arts leaders have been saying in the week since Boston Creates, City Hall’s months-long cultural planning project, released a draft version of its master plan — a document meant to chart the city’s cultural life for the next 10 years.
Just where the money for the initiative will come from remains unclear. Nor does the draft specify how much cash it needs or where it would be spent.
The document brims with anodyne prescriptions, such as a call to “integrate arts and culture into all aspects of civic life, inspiring Bostonians to value, engage in, and reap the benefits of creativity in their individual lives and in their communities.” It announces an intention to support affordable venues for arts groups. It would assemble “funding partners” to create a pooled resource for facilities costs. It urges the formation of a cash reserve for artistic innovation, and it calls for a “funding initiative” to provide general operating support.
Where the plan offers more detail is in its discussion of the impediments Boston faces in establishing a sustainable funding mechanism for the arts — a critical element many comparable cities have secured.
“This document has a whole section about what the city won’t do in terms of funding,” said Craig Coogan, executive director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. “It feels like they’re hamstringing themselves out of the gate.”
Like other arts leaders interviewed, Coogan applauded City Hall’s efforts as “a great first step,” saying he looked forward to the more detailed final plan, set for release on June 17. Still, the lack of clarity on funding is a major red flag for some arts leaders, who worry that without a dedicated revenue stream, the Boston Creates project will have little impact.
“There’s a lot of anxiousness to fill in the details,” said Coogan. “There’s a gap between what we expected a cultural plan to include and what it appears to include.”
Launched last spring, the $1.4-million Boston Creates project represents the first concentrated push by Julie Burros, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s hand-picked chief of arts and culture. Working with dozens of civic and arts leaders, Burros has spent a year holding community conversations, focus groups, and town hall-style meetings to inform the 38-page draft plan. Throughout, she has declined to discuss specific funding strategies, leading critics to wonder about the city’s vision.
Matt Chapuran, managing director of the Lyric Stage Company, was dismayed by the draft plan’s stance on funding.
“It’s disappointing to me to see a lot of frontloading in the plan around municipal roadblocks,” said Chapuran. “I am sympathetic that the city of Boston has limitations on what it can do unilaterally in terms of funding streams, but it would be great if there was more vision around where the creative community needs to coalesce in activism and advocacy.”
It’s no small matter. According to a study recently released by the Boston Foundation, the city ranks last in per capita government spending on the arts compared with 10 similar cities across the country. The draft plan’s authors blame Boston’s meager contribution on the Commonwealth’s home rule conventions, which dictate that cities cannot levy new taxes without state approval. They note that 67 percent of city revenue comes from property taxes — an “overreliance” exacerbated by the fact that 50 percent of the land in Boston is exempt from such taxes.
The authors write that Walsh has made “great strides” when it comes to arts funding, proposing a $2.3 million budget for the Office of Arts and Culture in fiscal year 2017. Nevertheless, they cede that the “possibility of further increases is severely limited. The city faces increasing fiscal pressure from different sources, including statutorily limited revenue tools, rising fixed costs, underfunding of charter school reimbursement, decreasing local aid, and the growing need for a wide range of city services.”
In other words, a push for dedicated arts funding in Boston — already a highly politicized venture as City Hall must sway state legislators — must also compete against other city needs, such as education, housing, and public safety.
Burros avoided discussing funding tactics, such as potential public-private partnerships, in detail last week, saying it was too early. “The creation of the plan and the implementation of the plan are really two different things,” she said, calling the draft a “milestone.” “When we’re at the final plan and we’re announcing implementation in June, there’ll be even more specifics.”
Some arts leaders agreed to speak candidly about the plan only on the condition of anonymity.
“There’s no meat on the bone,” said the leader of one of the city’s largest cultural organizations. “[Burros] has an impossible job, and I think deep down she knows that without the revenue source it will not work.. . . I would be saying to Marty [Walsh], are you going to be willing to go out on a limb and make this a legislative priority?”
Another arts leader worried that Burros lacks the leadership chops to rally the cultural sector around a concerted advocacy effort.
“It’s the verbal presentation: how it’s being talked about,” said the head of one of Boston’s largest arts groups. “It’s not inspiring. The document is inspiring, but the way its leader is talking about it doesn’t communicate the same clarity, vision, and conviction.”
Nevertheless, other arts leaders applauded Boston Creates, saying that merely having a citywide conversation is a welcome change and a sign of good things to come from the first-term administration.
“I like that the report starts with a recognition of our complexity,” said Marita Rivero, executive director of the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket. “I see the draft as an energizing first attempt to snap the sheet and give us a collective challenge to reimagine ourselves.”
David Snead, president and CEO of the Handel and Haydn Society, said he was similarly excited. “I really responded to the idea of the city being a catalyst for a collaboration among all the arts groups,” he said. “If we can all start rowing in the same direction and working together that would be great.”
City Hall gave the public a one-week window to submit comments to the draft. That window closed Monday evening, with the host site registering 223 comments.
“I’ve been doing a lot of briefings and meetings,” said Burros. “We’ve been doing implementation planning, and whenever I talk about the findings and strategies, you know, I see a lot of nodding heads.”