Now is the time for Boston to invest more fully in its artistic community and ensure that the arts become the economic driver that this city deserves.
The Boston area is well known for its world-class colleges and universities. These educational institutions produce an amazing diversity of artists, performers, and arts administrators. But once they graduate they begin to leave, abandoning the place that has helped to form them for cities that can fully support them professionally: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco. While Boston provides the foundation on which these careers are built, it does little to nurture them, allowing other cities to benefit from these extraordinarily talented individuals.
Boston has done a remarkable job in retaining young professionals in the areas of finance and technology by creating an Innovation District and other incentives to stay here, but for far too long it has been deficient in retaining cultural professionals. Boston needs to support these individuals at the same level found in other major US cities, and in the same manner in which it invests in housing, education, and health care.
Boston has come to a pivotal moment. For the first time in 20 years the citizens of this city will elect a new mayor. The current administration has been a great friend of the arts. Efforts to rejuvenate the theater district and support the creation of the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End and the Institute of Contemporary Arts on Boston’s waterfront have been enormously helpful in the cultural development of the city. But as many others have noted, Boston deserves more than just a friend: What it needs is a champion, an individual who will make connecting artists to the city and retaining cultural talent a high priority.
The mayor was recently quoted as having said that the cultural community of Boston is “reaching its peak.” I certainly hope that this is not the case. Boston can do so much more for its cultural community. The same innovation districts and incentives available to the finance and technology sectors must also be supported in the cultural sector. Luckily for Boston, the infrastructure is already in place in the form of many nonprofit cultural organizations. With greater support, the cultural community of Boston will reciprocate by driving economic and social growth in Boston’s neighborhoods.
These organizations have been in the city for decades, providing services for studio artists, theater, and dance companies. These organizations are trying unendingly to reduce costs for artists and organizations so that they will remain here. But unlike cities like Los Angeles and New York, where funding for arts and cultural institutions is woven into the fabric of municipal budgets, Boston does not provide nearly the level of support needed to grow the cultural sector in any significant way. We will continue to see rapid emigration of the city’s talent unless something more is done; the city must provide the resources necessary to sustain and increase Boston’s cultural cachet.
Other cities that have recognized the value of the arts have benefited greatly. In 2012, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance reported that the arts and cultural sector had a $3.3 billion impact on the region, due in large part to a conscious investment in arts and artists in the community.
Boston needs to be similarly invested in its cultural vibrancy. Boston’s cultural innovation districts need to be lively, animated arts campuses where working artists and audiences are connected through a variety of programs, residencies, educational experiences, and performances. To do this, the city must help to subsidize rents, provide professional development services for artists, and increase public awareness of their work. By providing this level of support, the city will undoubtedly see increases in cultural tourism and community engagement. These organizations can also propel the development and renewal of neighborhoods, further driving economic growth and providing outlets for creativity to underserved populations.
Supporting artists must be a high priority for the city’s next mayor and for its citizens. The present administration has served for 20 years, so what we do with our vote has the potential to touch generations of Bostonians. The economic and social impact will reverberate through every aspect of urban life. Make supporting the arts, arts professionals, and cultural institutions a major issue this November. Without it, we stand to lose so much more than just beautiful art. With it, what we gain will be invaluable.
Philip W. Lovejoy is chairman of the board of the Boston Center for the Arts.