There’s an old saying: “You can’t cry fire in a crowded theater.”
Well, that’s not the problem in Boston. Just ask Julie Burros, the city’s chief of arts and culture.
Except for a tepid e-mail statement, Burros has been oddly silent since the Globe broke news in early September that Emerson College planned to shutter the Colonial Theatre . Then CitiBank said it would end its sponsorship of the Citi Performing Arts Center , followed by headlines that both the Huntington Theatre Company and Boston Lyric Opera may need new homes.
After more than a week of trying, I finally got our arts czar on the phone Wednesday from Los Angeles, where she is attending a conference. I quickly found out why she hasn’t felt the need to publicly discuss the seismic shifts in the local theater business.
“I’m not panicking,” she said during our half-hour conversation. “I know a lot of people are panicking. I have been working with everyone involved.”
Burros went on to explain that she has known for months about the turmoil in the city’s theater industry, and she and members of the Walsh administration have been working behind the scenes to help. She said she couldn’t talk because it would be a breach of confidentiality to discuss specifics.
“I am sensitive to the fact there are a lot of changes going on, seemingly going on all at once,” she said.
But it’s not just the media wondering where in the world is Burros, but also patrons and leaders of the arts community. When asked why she hasn’t been out front on the issue, her response was: “I don’t know. I’m not sure how to answer that.”
Joe Spaulding, the CEO of the Citi Performing Arts Center, is one of those leaders who has yet to hear from Burros or anyone from the city since Citibank announced a month ago that it would be ending its multimillion-dollar sponsorship.
His nonprofit operates the historic Wang and Shubert theaters, and until recently the Colonial.
“It’s a time of change,” said Spaulding. “That requires leadership.”
So maybe Burros didn’t know that Spaulding would have liked a reassuring call from City Hall. At the very least is Burros nudging companies to pick up where Citibank left off?
“I would be happy to foster any introductions, but as you know, I’m pretty new to town. So I don’t necessarily have relationships with corporate funders,” she said. “I don’t know if I have that kind of pull yet.”
Come again? That doesn’t sound very czar-like to me.
At this point, I wanted to do my best impression of Gloria Steinem and shout, “You have power!” And here’s why: Candidate Marty Walsh made a big deal about supporting the arts, pledging to create a long-term plan and a Cabinet-level position.
“Arts can change lives, build communities, create jobs, and create new opportunities for individuals, neighborhoods, and Boston as a whole,” he said during a 2013 campaign event. “In my administration, artists will have a true partner and advocate in City Hall.”
When Mayor Walsh plucked Burros last fall from Chicago, where she was that city’s longtime director of cultural planning, the Boston arts community cheered her hiring for the $125,000 a year job.
Then in the spring, Walsh made good on another promise when Burros launched an 18-month planning process that would map out priorities for arts and culture.
But the lack of a robust public response from City Hall to recent developments has raised eyebrows. Is Burros just a figurehead, and how committed is Walsh to the arts?
“This is an opportunity for him to show he is a champion of the arts,” said Matt Wilson, the executive director of MASSCreative, a statewide advocacy group that made arts an issue in the Boston mayoral race. “We hope he seizes it.”
What people keep referencing is what Walsh’s predecessor Tom Menino did. Over two decades, Menino used his bully pulpit to get private and public partners to restore aging theaters, including the Paramount, Modern, and Opera House, which helped jumpstart the revitalization of Downtown Crossing.
My suggestion to City Hall that Walsh might not have empowered Burros got Joyce Linehan riled up. Linehan is Walsh’s chief of policy, but prior to joining the administration she spent much of her career promoting the arts.
Linehan said Burros has the confidence of the administration and that the mayor is keeping close tabs on the upheavel in the theater arts. So much so that at least three Cabinet chiefs — including Burros, Linehan, and economic chief John Barros — are engaged on the issue. The mayor himself has also been involved in multiple conversations over the past two weeks.
“We are expected to have an opinion five minutes before it happens and before being able to think about it,” said Linehan. “It’s a much larger story here about an ecosystem in Boston that has too many of one kind of performing arts seat and not enough of another.”
The Colonial, for example, has a difficult time filling its seats with public performances, which is one reason why Emerson wants to redevelop it; one plan includes transforming the theater into a mixed-used space that would feature a flexible stage and a student dining hall. Meanwhile, the Lyric Opera is leaving the Shubert Theatre in search of a better space, and the Huntington wants to stay at the Boston University Theatre, but that property is up for sale.
Linehan tells me she just got sign-off from the mayor to launch a study — one that can be done in about six months — to assess the city’s theater needs. The mayor, for one, has already talked about the need for a new performing arts center, a multiuse space that can be used for the opera or ballet.
“I see it as a really great opportunity to rethink the entire landscape here,” said Linehan.
No disagreement on that point, but Burros and the rest of the administration need to get on the public stage and project.