Wanted: Boston event sponsors with deep pockets
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Ted Cutler and David Mugar are in the same predicament. Both have created free celebrations as gifts to the people of Boston, but now they are ready to pass the torch.
Who can blame them? Cutler is 85. Mugar is 76.
"I am not going to be doing this when I am 90 years old," Cutler told me. "I am surprised I am doing it at 85 years old."
I may have a solution to their very expensive problems, but more on that later.
Cutler made gobs of his money in the trade show business, but today his labor of love is putting on a weeklong music and performing arts extravaganza called Outside the Box. It's held in July on the Boston Common and last year had an estimated attendance of 350,000.
Cutler has put on the festival twice and wants to do it again this year, but he's $1 million short on funding. So far only Capital One and Turkish Airlines are the major sponsors. He has to make a decision in a week or so on whether to go ahead or pull the plug.
Cutler could continue to bankroll the $2.5 million project out of his own pocket. But that's not the point.
"It's not a question about writing a check," Cutler said. "It has to be sustainable."
Mugar is the mastermind behind a much longer tradition — the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on the Esplanade. This July will mark Mugar's 43rd Independence Day celebration, and he has said it will be his last.
No one has yet stepped forward to take over the reins. Not only that, the event no longer has a corporate sponsor. He is looking for $2.5 million to put on the show.
"I had always assumed — which is always a mistake in life — some company or companies would want to step forward," said Mugar, who paid for the event for the first 27 years. His family fortune came from selling the Star Market empire decades ago.
"That's why I say in a nice way I created a monster," Mugar added. "I wouldn't say it is discouraging. It's disappointing. Ted may feel the same way. You just can't pass these things on."
When I talked to Mugar in December about the lack of funding for his event, he didn't sound worried. There was still some time. Not so now.
Mugar will beg corporate sponsors for another month. I'm holding out hope that General Electric Co. — which will move its headquarters to Boston later this year — will also keep our skyline lit up on the Fourth of July.
As for this year, Mugar assures me the show will go on, even if that means he must open his own wallet. But then that's it.
"I don't know what the future of the event will be," Mugar said.
Cutler and Mugar are two philanthropists from a soon-to-be-gone era. They made a lot of money but also chose to give a lot away to support something fun and creative.
Cutler created Outside the Box so that everyone can enjoy a concert, not just those who can afford to. Mugar organized the July 4th event because he loved the free summer concerts legendary Pops maestro Arthur Fiedler used to give on the Esplanade.
But the problem Cutler and Mugar have is bigger than them. We have become a city that doesn't invest in the arts in general and the performing arts in particular.
A recent Boston Foundation report confirmed what many of us have been feeling: Art organizations in Boston receive meager foundation and corporate support compared with those in other major cities. Among those groups, the performing arts segment in Boston struggles the most for resources, particularly in theater and dance.
Are we just a bunch of tightwads?
"I don't think people are stingy," Cutler said. "I don't think people have pushed for the arts."
Cutler and Mugar have a tough time raising money because companies want to give to social causes. Help the homeless, feed the hungry, fund education.
All important, but so are arts and music. There's a growing body of research that indicates that arts education helps kids become better readers and writers, and boosts their math skills. Exposure to the arts also gets kids to think critically and more creatively — which is what they'll need to come up with the next generation of big ideas.
So here's a thought on how Cutler and Mugar's festivals can live on, and while I'm at it, let's throw in the Boston HarborFest, which is held the week leading up to the Fourth of July.
All three should consider joining forces to create a 10-day celebration of the music and the arts. There will be economies of scale from staff to marketing. Come up with a name and persuade a few corporate sponsors to underwrite a new tradition.
Cutler is in, if Mugar is.
"If David wants to do something with me, I would be honored," Cutler said.
Mugar is open to the idea, and so is Dusty Rhodes, president of Conventures, which is organizing HarborFest.
The only thing that shouldn't change is that these events remain free.
But as we all know, someone has to pay. Who will that be?