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Julie Burros has big plans for Boston’s arts scene

The city’s new arts and culture chief talks about what Boston needs most.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Fundamentally, how do you see your role?

To understand arts and culture and the role it plays in people’s everyday lives, then to find out how government can best support that. And how to articulate that arts and culture helps us be a thriving, innovative, healthy city.

Does Boston’s arts and culture scene need to change?

There’s lots of incredible work going on. The arts and culture scene doesn’t need to change. How we approach supporting it needs to change.

Complete this sentence: The Boston arts and culture scene is . . . 

Underappreciated and, to a certain extent, under-resourced.


What’s the biggest concern you’ve heard from the arts folks so far?

Two big things are emerging as priorities: space — of all kinds, for all sorts of things — and a dedicated funding stream.

I read stories from Chicago where you described yourself as a buffer or translator between government’s “culture of no” and the “culture of yes” among arts people. Explain what you mean.

Bernie Sahlins, a founder of [Chicago’s] Second City, gave a talk to teach us that whole “Yes, and . . .” philosophy of validating someone’s idea, building on it, and moving it forward. I really believe in that. That is the approach that the arts and culture world has — “Let’s put on a show, let’s make it happen, let’s re-imagine things.” Regulatory framework is usually set up for “no” as the default.

What was the one thing that got you to leave Chicago and come here?

While some people might have been concerned — it’s a small department, it’s a small staff, not a lot of resources — I thought it was great. Then the department isn’t hamstrung by decades and decades of “We’ve always done it this way.” I get to kind of craft it and change it and create something new.


I lived in Chicago for a while. I thought a lot when I first moved here about how the cities were alike and different. Chicago is big and it’s vast and weird in this wonderful way. It feels a little more like a cleaner slate. Boston is smaller and has this regional mind-set with New England, but much more hidebound.

[Chicago is] 200 years younger than Boston. Two hundred years! That’s mind-blowing. When Boston was the biggest city in the United States, [Chicago] was the wild west, right? I do think people move out west to kind of reinvent themselves and shake off the history. There’s that, I think, wild openness that still pervades. Here, things are more complex.

What is art’s value in this crazy world?

Artists are taking in all this information and they’re expressing it and reflecting it back. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo — they’re making sense of what’s going on in the world and they’re expressing it. Of course, the arts are sometimes used as an escape. I just was listening to a podcast where Henry Rollins was talking about the role of punk rock in his life, about burning through the anger. And so people are using arts and culture to process what’s going on in their lives in a very meaningful way.

I was thinking back to that controversy in New York, when artist Chris Ofili used elephant dung in his painting The Holy Virgin Mary, and then mayor Rudy Giuliani freaked out. Does a city have a role in somehow dictating or limiting the content of art, or not?


I’m a strong believer in grant-making to individual artists. Boston doesn’t do it yet. There is often a fear about the content: What is the artist going to come up with? Artists are asking questions through their artwork. Sometimes those questions are not welcome questions. I’m a big believer in pushing the envelope. We don’t want to be purposely provocative in a sort of irresponsible and dangerous way. In Boston, there has been a very traditional approach to the role of public art in particular: “We want to memorialize this person, and we’re going to have a bronze statue on a plaza.” I’d like to push the community here to think more innovatively.

So somebody comes in and says, “Front-row tickets to any concert.” What’s your number one choice?

I feel like no matter what I say I’m going to be unfavorably judged. One of my favorite bands is The Clash, who I never got to see live. I saw Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. I would love to see Bob Dylan perform. I’d love to see something I haven’t seen. If I had the choice — this is terrible; you shouldn’t even make me say this — but between an opera or a concert or a poetry reading or a gallery opening or a play, I’m almost always going to choose the play.

On the relationship between the arts and income inequality, I’m curious to know: Can you use arts and culture to address that growing problem?


Maximizing people’s creative capital could help create income opportunities for people who maybe don’t see themselves fitting into the four-year college track or the corporate world. There’s another relationship in, how can unlocking people’s creative tools help them be more employable, more well-rounded employees for all different kinds of industries? And then there’s just the appeal factor. If we have more robust arts and culture offerings in our schools, it could keep kids in school longer.

What about the Olympics? Do you have any sense yet of how that could affect you?

It’s a little-known fact that every Olympics has a cultural Olympiad. The opening and closing ceremonies are part of it, but then there’s a whole cultural festival that happens alongside. It’s a huge opportunity for the culture community.

When the city’s cultural plan is finished, what will it give us?

A deep understanding of the needs of the people of Boston with respect to arts and culture — not only the needs of the arts and culture community, but the needs of our city as a whole — and then an articulation of the role that government can play in meeting those needs.

How do you make sure it doesn’t go on a shelf?

I want to come back to the mayor’s charge to me to work as collaboratively and intergovernmentally as possible. What’s the role of arts and culture in the transit agency? In our libraries? [For] veterans and the elderly and our schools? You begin to see that it’s deeply interwoven in how we can do business as a city. It’s going to manifest all throughout what the city does. That’s the way to keep it lively and relevant and to make it real.


This interview was condensed and edited.

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at scott.helman@globe.com and on Twitter @swhelman.