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opinion | James E. Canales and Jane Chu

Boston’s development boom must include arts, culture

A 60-foot community mural was created outside of the Prudential Center on Memorial Day last year.Globe file

ARTS AND CULTURE are thriving in Boston and around the nation. On Monday, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts will be in the region to experience first-hand some of that energy and vitality. With the appointment of Julie Burros as Boston’s first chief of arts in culture in decades, Mayor Martin J. Walsh has solidified his commitment to promoting and advancing the arts. Last month, the mayor launched Boston Creates, an 18-month, citywide cultural planning effort to shape the future of arts and culture for the next decade.

These efforts have elevated the arts in unprecedented ways and provided them a seat at the decision-making table in Boston. This should be celebrated at the same time as we commit ourselves to making the most of the moment.


To place these developments in a broader context, we’re highlighting three national trends that are evident in other leading creative cities and are so fortuitously aligned today in Boston.

■  Transforming places. Creative placemaking is a new term for an old idea: drawing on arts and culture as catalysts for economic development and community revitalization. Through ArtPlace America, an initiative to which the Barr Foundation — the largest endowed private nonprofit foundation in Massachusetts — contributes, cities are investing in creative places infused with new energy and oriented to expanding opportunity.

One such effort funded by ArtPlace America is in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner. Expanding from there along the so-called Fairmount Cultural Corridor, this is one of several exciting creative placemaking efforts underway in Boston. These projects embrace a broad definition of the arts, acknowledging that creative expression occurs in many venues and in various forms. It also recognizes the arts as a key driver of economic revitalization and a way to get more residents engaged in city planning.

■  Adapting to new realities. Expanding our reach involves a broader approach than just counting how many people attend an event. We must ensure that cultural providers remain relevant to those we serve. A few months ago, the NEA released two new research reports that capture the ways different populations engage — or don’t — with the arts. They found that about three-quarters of all American adults, about 167 million people, use the Internet to watch, listen to, or download art. There are another 30 million people who want to go to the arts, but do not for some reason. That’s an opportunity to interact with 200 million people, and online engagement feeds live attendance. Data like this give arts providers fodder to adapt and stay relevant, so they can connect with their audiences in a variety of ways.


As a result, leading arts organizations — including more than two dozen in Boston supported by Barr and the Klarman Family Foundation — are seeking to adapt their practices. That means rethinking business models and financial structures so they can be nimbler, respond more easily to the evolving needs of their audiences, and take the creative risks that challenge, surprise and inspire in ways that ensure ongoing relevancy.

■  Planning for the future. More cities have undertaken cultural planning to shape a coherent approach to advancing the arts. Cultural planning looks different in each place, as it should. Yet, when we consider the cities where cultural planning has been most effective, we consistently find an ambitious, inclusive, communitywide effort to develop a shared vision and blueprint for arts and culture — one that prioritizes, coordinates, and aligns public and private resources to strengthen cultural vitality long term.


With its launch last month, Boston Creates is off to a great start. Yet the proof will be in what we all make of this opportunity, as Boston starts to engage residents on community teams and through a series of public events beginning in June.

Boston is in the vanguard of this movement — it’s embracing and prioritizing arts and culture, recognizing that they are essential to thriving cities. The arts elevate our spirits, enliven our communities, and enrich our lives. Now is the time to embrace a more inclusive definition of the arts, to make our support for them evident, and to engage actively in shaping the future of arts and culture in Boston. Let’s seize the moment.

James E. Canales is president and trustee of the Barr Foundation. Jane Chu is chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.


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