Arts leaders march to State House to seek more funding for culture
Hundreds of arts leaders and advocates from around Massachusetts descended on the State House on Tuesday to deliver a pointed message to lawmakers: With federal arts funding in jeopardy, it’s more important than ever that Massachusetts increase its investment in arts and culture.
The full-court press included marching bands and colorful signs as the throng headed across Boston Common to Beacon Hill — all part of Arts Matter Advocacy Day, an effort to increase state support for the arts.
“The news coming out of Washington, D.C., has a lot of people thinking about their core values,” said Matthew Wilson, executive director of the arts advocacy group MassCreative, which organized the event. “A number of issues may be falling to the states, and we’re looking for state leaders to tap into the vast resources of the arts and culture community.”
A standing-room-only crowd of around 600 kicked off the event at Emerson College’s Paramount Center, boning up on talking points before marching to the State House to meet with legislators.
“It’s a chance to tell them why arts matter to us, and why they should matter to them,” ArtsEmerson executive director David C. Howse told the crowd. “We then ask for commitments — will you support boosting the Massachusetts Cultural Council budget?”
Sara Stackhouse, chair of theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, urged advocates to make a personal connection with legislators by sharing stories of how the arts have changed their lives. “We know that arts save lives, and we know that it makes life worth living,” Stackhouse said.
Among those in the crowd were Julie Burros, Boston’s chief of arts and culture; Gregory Ruffer, president and CEO of the Boston Center for the Arts; and ArtsBoston executive director Catherine Peterson. Other speakers included Emerson College president Lee Pelton and Democratic state representatives Mary Keefe of Worcester and Christine Barber of Somerville.
The number of attendees was nearly three times greater than at Arts Matter Advocacy Day in 2015. The increase, organizers say, reflects a new sense of urgency. President Trump recently proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and other cultural agencies from the federal budget.
“The president’s proposal is hitting a nerve with a lot of folks, and turning passive arts supporters into arts activists,” Wilson said. “It forces the issue of what is most important to us: Is it investing in the NEA and NEH, or is it building more F-15 bombers?”
That was enough to inspire Concord’s Deborah Disston, a self-professed lobbying greenhorn who directs the McIninch Art Gallery at Southern New Hampshire University.
“We really don’t know what we’re doing,” Disston said as she huddled with a group before stepping into the chill afternoon. “I just can’t stand by when someone threatens funding for the arts.”
Advocates hope to persuade lawmakers to support a $16 million allocation for the Massachusetts Cultural Council next year. That spending on arts and culture would be a nearly $2 million increase over what Governor Charlie Baker recommended in January.
Greg Liakos, communications director for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency, said that while cuts to federal agencies would affect MCC’s grant-making abilities, the call for expanded arts funding is part of a long-term effort to rebuild the MCC, which weathered massive cuts at the turn of the millennium and whose budget is currently roughly $14 million.
“It’s worth remembering that the state appropriation for the MCC was $19 million in 2001,” Liakos said. “We’ve never fully recovered from that. If you look at it in inflation-adjusted terms, our operating support grants are about half of what they were in 2001.”
Advocates also hope to persuade lawmakers to support a state Senate bill, introduced in January, that would create a Massachusetts fund for public art by setting aside 1 percent of the portion of the state capital budget allocated for new buildings and renovations, which Wilson estimated was roughly $200 million. The funds would go into a pool that could be drawn on for targeted projects.
“It allows $2 million to be focused on projects that can have significant impact,” Wilson said, adding that 27 other states have similar programs.
Advocates are also celebrating a decision by the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to adopt guidelines to enhance arts education. They call for a revised arts education curriculum and will require each district to produce a report card on access to the arts.
“This is going to allow for transparency in what arts education looks like across our Commonwealth,” Myran Parker-Brass, executive director for the arts at Boston Public Schools, told the crowd. “This is our opportunity to redefine what quality arts education looks like.”
Wilson called the new guidelines “a big victory.”
“Now we need to follow up and make sure they include the community in the development of standards and programs,” he said.
Arriving at the State House, Disston’s group wandered the halls briefly before finding state Senator Mike Barrett’s office, where a staffer heard their pitch and assured them the Lexington Democrat was on board.
“I have no idea how it went,” Disston said as she left. But then she was off on the next task: “What’s the best way to get to [Representative] Cory Atkins’s office?”