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Making arts policy a priority

ean spangler for the boston globe

To one degree or another, all the major candidates for governor in the recent election campaign voiced their support for the arts, and each pledged that arts and culture would be a priority in the new administration. Charlie Baker was no exception. In reply to a questionnaire from the arts advocacy group MassCreative, Baker declared, “The importance and impact of the arts and culture cut across multiple areas of state government, from economic development to education.”

But many of Baker’s answers to the questionnaire, especially in comparison to some of the other candidates, were dry and non-committal, promising only to ensure “adequate funding” for the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the state’s Cultural Facilities Fund, and to work creating public-private partnerships in cultural development. More is needed. Governor-elect Baker should take a page from the playbook of Mayor Martin J. Walsh — who recently appointed a Boston “arts czar” — and create a cabinet-level position for arts and culture. That appointee would be charged with creating a comprehensive plan for the development of the Commonwealth’s arts and culture. It’s time to stop thinking of support for the arts as a bailout for a handful of unsustainable organizations and individuals — after all, it’s included in most of their charters that they will be “nonprofit” — but as an investment in the future of the Commonwealth.


Despite the boilerplate campaign rhetoric of “I support the arts!,” when hard times hit, and austerity is called for, arts are the first thing to go. Nowhere is that more evident than in the budget for the Massachusetts Cultural Council — the state agency charged with supporting artists and arts organizations — where the funding dropped by more than half, from $27 million in 1988 to $12 million in 2014. Recently, the dial has begun to move in the other direction. The Legislature opposed further cuts to the council’s budget in 2014 by actually giving it a slight increase. And Governor Deval Patrick tripled the Cultural Facilities Fund — which supports the maintenance and repair of arts venues — from $5 million to $15 million. Meanwhile, it would be nice to get the council’s budget up to at least what it was 10 years ago.

The arts are not merely an add-on — a luxury — but an essential component of the state’s quality of life. The Massachusetts arts community encompasses roughly 6,000 arts and cultural organizations that support more than 45,000 jobs. A report last summer by ArtsBoston showed that nonprofit arts and cultural organizations boost the Boston economy alone by $1 billion every year. Arts education has been shown to improve student performance across the disciplines and to transform troubled schools like Roxbury’s Orchard Gardens. The latter went from being one of the worst schools in the state to becoming one of the best after a new principal initiated a robust arts program. Likewise, an array of arts programs — from the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Incarcerated Youth at Play to the Boston Children’s Chorus, Shakespeare and Company’s Shakespeare in the Courts, RAW (Raw Art Works) in Lynn, and Zumix in East Boston — have been instrumental in curbing youth violence across the state and changing young lives. And it is impossible to imagine the turnarounds in economically distressed cities like Pittsfield, North Adams, and Lowell without investment in the arts.


These programs and initiatives might ring a chord with Governor-elect Baker, in part because they echo the intent of his own “Urban Agenda,” which he presented on the campaign trail. In that platform statement, Baker touted education, economic development, and public safety/youth violence as key priorities in transforming Massachusetts’ cities. Looked at in these terms, the arts are not merely a component of the tourist industry but part of the fabric of everyday life, something that helps create community and sustain neighborhoods.


A comprehensive statewide arts program would also take into account the need for performance and gallery spaces as well as affordable housing and work space for artists. Boston, for one, is a cultural mecca, and yet it barely fulfills its potential.

The tiny Factory Theatre in the South End closed its doors on Nov. 2, leaving its four resident companies, and a handful of other small theater companies, homeless. With only 49 seats, the basement venue would seem like a mere footnote to Boston’s theater scene. But Boston is bursting with theater talent — actors, playwrights, and costume, set, and lighting designers. And there are precious few affordable spaces for them to practice and develop their craft. The two biggest metro-Boston independent nonprofit companies, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge and the Huntington Theatre Company of Boston, have regular homes. The smaller Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater are housed in the 225-seat Central Square Theatre. But if you have a friend who works in the theater, chances are you saw them perform in a church basement or storefront. And they were the lucky ones. Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington, told the Globe in 2013, “I can walk out of my office and the first five young people I meet are all doing theater at night in addition to their jobs at the Huntington.”

These artists are the future not only of the arts in Boston and Massachusetts, but also of the health of the Commonwealth as a whole. It’s true that tourist dollars are part of what makes the arts a viable economic commodity, but it’s safe to say that national and international tourists do not come to Boston to see touring productions of “The Wiz” or “Wicked.” Our homegrown artists, arts organizations, and audiences are what make for a viable arts economy. And supporting these individuals and organizations is part of an investment that will make the arts sustainable in the long term and in turn reward the state with new jobs and fresh revenue. As Maso also told the Globe, these artists are already providing a kind of subsidy: “They’re basically subsidizing their own work because they have to find another way to make a living.”


The point is not merely to make Massachusetts a place that attracts and keeps artists, or one where the arts generate capital, but also a place that attracts businesses, non-profits, and individuals who want to be part of a stimulating community.

Nor is the point that arts education will churn out artists any more than Shakespeare in the Courts will turn juvenile offenders into professional actors. But there are other, no less crucial benefits. A 2012 report from the National Endowment for the Arts, entitled “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth,” concluded that students “who have arts-rich experiences in school do better across-the-board academically, but they also become more active and engaged citizens, voting, volunteering, and generally participating at higher rates than their peers.” That’s the kind of across-the-board achievement that the Commonwealth as a whole can aspire to.