Last month, a story circulating on social media garnered a lot of attention among local musicians. An artist couple announced that after many years of trying to make things work here, they will leave Somerville for Los Angeles. They felt there would be more opportunities to be successful on the West Coast. It was not the kind of story any official wants to hear, especially one whose team is in the midst of an expansive effort to help address such concerns.
The couple’s story encapsulated much of what we’ve heard since I began my campaign for mayor of Boston back in 2013. Artists often find it difficult to flourish here and are sometimes compelled to seek greener pastures elsewhere. They feel squeezed in a number of ways: by the high cost of living, a shortage of suitable studio or performance spaces, stiff competition for gigs and grants, the strain of piecing together a living from freelance work, and a lack of support from government, business, and institutions.
If Boston is going to be a thriving, healthy, and innovative city, we need our artists to flourish. Artists can help solve big problems and heal old wounds. Artists embody the creativity that fuels innovation, and innovation is part of the fabric of Boston. Their work expresses our histories and our values. It communicates our fears, hopes, and dreams. Art brings people together. We see this in the crowds that gathered around the Echelman sculpture on the Greenway last summer, in Illuminus at Fenway, where percussionists “played” the Green Monster, and in our neighborhood festivals and parades. From the beginning of this administration, we identified the arts as a top priority. And we recognized that supporting the arts begins with supporting artists’ work. Without our artists, we aren’t Boston.
About a year ago, we launched Boston Creates, an inclusive cultural planning process. We have engaged artists, arts organizations, funders, consumers, universities, educators, and more in workshops, town hall meetings, community gatherings, and other discussion groups. So far, we have affirmed the obvious: Artists need support and resources. But we are also learning that it is vitally important to break down silos and see that arts and creativity are embedded in everything that makes our city run. We want the arts to be a part of the process when departments such as Public Works, Property Management, Transportation and others are thinking about how to approach their work. Furthermore, we are realizing that in order to achieve our goal of becoming a leading city for the arts, my administration must do all it can to create conditions for success, or, as we have been calling it, “fertile ground.” We are committing to work on all of these things.
We will release our plan in June, but we are not waiting until then to begin responding to some of what we’ve learned.
In my State of the City address, I announced a $1 million investment in the artists of Boston. This will take the form of three programs. The first one will make direct grants to artists, aiming to support their professional development, their creative projects, and their ability to carry out their work. Second, we are launching an artist resource office to help artists navigate City Hall, with guidance on everything from applying for permits to using home-buying programs. The office will also centralize many resources that already exist but can be difficult to find, like information on grants, calls for artwork, and opportunities for professional development.
The third program represents the expansion of a pilot launched last year with support from the National Endowment for the Arts: Boston AIR, or artists in residence. Boston AIR seeks to integrate arts into core city services. This expansion will employ artists in 10 to 12 of the 29 community centers run by Boston Centers for Youth & Families, embedding them in the agency’s day-to-day work. In our mind, the program will be successful if it teaches participants to think differently, solving problems in areas like conflict resolution, cultural competency, and improvement of public spaces, as it also creates art. The possibilities are exciting.
We know artists don’t work in isolation. They are part of the network of more than 1,500 nonprofit cultural organizations in this region as well as the vibrant commercial arts industry, which includes architects, designers, musicians, concert venues, filmmakers, and more.
The Boston Creates cultural plan will address the entire arts and culture ecosystem in Boston — from education to economics to our built environment, all through the lens of equality of access. It will offer a blueprint for collaboration and investment. It will address the state of our performing arts facilities, helping ensure that all kinds of producers have the appropriate range of venues in which to work. And it will advocate for resources for artist housing and for supporting new and innovative work. We will work on all these ambitious goals.
Our first step is to show a commitment to artists: We want you to stay here. We want more of you to come.
I wish that artist couple the best of luck in Los Angeles. As we work toward creating an environment that enables artists to thrive, I hope they will one day decide to return to Boston.
Martin J. Walsh is the 54th mayor of Boston. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.