ONE MEASURE of a healthy city is the art that comes out of it. Boston is an amazing place to consume the arts — with the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, ArtsEmerson, the Symphony, the Ballet, the universities. But for artists, Boston can be a discouraging place to work.
The city’s chief of arts and culture, Julie Burros, arrived from Chicago with great fanfare in December 2014, but she’s now leaving. Mayor Marty Walsh shouldn’t just put someone new in the job; he needs to continue to reckon with the underlying dynamics that make Boston so difficult for artists.
Many people don’t realize how much talent is here. It’s not just Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians. Two years ago, Roxbury artist Ekua Holmes won the Caldecott Honor, one of the top prizes in children’s picture books. The House Slam poets have been bringing home national championships. The city’s hip-hop scene is ascendant with STL GLD, Dutch ReBelle, Oompa, Cliff Notez. And check out our street artists: Victor “Marka27” Quiñonez, Cedric Douglas, Imagine (Sneha Shrestha).
But Boston artists feel a lack of community, a lack of support. Our major museums and universities generally ignore art made here. Organizers of events like the Wake Up the Earth Festival are frustrated by ballooning police costs. Rappers have a hard time finding venues where they can perform. Artists continue to be pushed out of buildings by redevelopers and skyrocketing real estate costs.
Artists find themselves living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, but without the creative infrastructure or commercial opportunities that exist in New York or Los Angeles. So many ask themselves: Why not leave for places like that?
Burros — with the help of the California-based Cultural Planning Group — shepherded a series of community forums that built the “Boston Creates” arts vision plan that debuted two years ago. During her tenure at the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, the city established a Percent for Art program to devote funding to public art from new city capital projects, began offering financial grants to individual artists, launched an Artist Resource Desk to help artists navigate the city bureaucracy, and started the Boston AIR artist-in-residence program.
Walsh’s championing of the arts during his first mayoral run got local art communities excited by new possibilities. But Burros has been more manager than leader, not the sort who inspires folks to her cause or quietly marshals coalitions. This has left a gap, even as there’s a burst of civic energy being generated by folks like the Barr Foundation, the Network for Arts Administrators of Color, the independent public art curators Now + There, the underground concert producers at Boston Hassle and Brain Arts, the statewide arts advocacy group MassCreative.
Boston’s next arts chief needs to be a leader who embodies the excitement of the arts — and can inspire that excitement in others. Someone who attracts volunteers, donors, artists mulling leaving the city.
More importantly, though, the next chief of the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture needs to be someone who understands how hard it is to be an artist here. It’s not just the pressures of funding and permitting and finding a place to share your art. It’s not simply the city’s entrenched inclination to say no, rather than yes. Perhaps the most pressing challenge for the next arts chief is that artists and smaller institutions are being rapidly pushed out by how expensive it is to live and operate here. We need an arts chief who’ll use that seat in the mayor’s cabinet to push for affordable housing (not just for artists, but for everyone), good-paying day jobs, and health care at a time when Massachusetts’ pioneering system is threatened by attacks on the federal Affordable Care Act.
And we need to continue to address the ways systemic racism frustrates the city’s — and art community’s — potential. In April, “White Lives Matter” was scrawled on the outside of the Roxbury building that’s home to the Black Market pop-up for black businesses and artists. Meanwhile, in the booming new Seaport “Innovation District,” which has come to symbolize the future of the city, only 3 percent of the residents are black. We need someone who will make our rich diversity the center of our cultural efforts.
Ultimately, we need someone skilled at creating opportunities for others — for all of us. Our next arts chief needs to continue championing art-making, not just art-consuming. The reputations of great art communities are built not simply on their venues, but on the art they create.
Greg Cook is an artist, founding editor of Wonderland magazine, a publicist for the Cambridge Arts Council, and creates festivals with the Somerville Arts Council.