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State and city must lead in arts funding

Two women examined a Frida Kahlo painting acquired by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in December. Steven Senne/Associated Press/File

THE NEWS FOR the Boston arts community recently has been good and bad. The good news was that Mayor Marty Walsh announced a $1 million initiative to support the arts in the city. The bad news was that, according to a report from the Boston Foundation, arts in Greater Boston are still woefully underfunded.

The 71-page report, researched and written by the consulting firm TDC, is sweeping and comprehensive in its analysis of the nonprofit arts market in Greater Boston. On the one hand, it found a robust arts scene that in many ways rivals or surpasses in depth and breadth the arts communities in 10 other cities that were analyzed, which included New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. But it also rated Boston weak in terms of foundation and corporate funding, and lowest in per-capita government funding, especially from the city and state. Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, told the Globe’s Malcolm Gay, that, in several ways, the city is “punching above its weight.”


That would suggest that further public funding is unnecessary. The Boston Foundation report is agnostic on that point. But Grogan’s introduction to the published report does offer this telling comment: “[L]imited investments by foundations, corporations, and government may be preventing our region’s cultural institutions, especially small and mid-sized nonprofits, from realizing their fullest potential.”

The report found that, in sheer numbers, Boston’s more than 1,500 arts organizations, on a per capita basis, outpaced even New York City, and that the arts have had “a significant impact on the state’s economy.” But the report also found that Boston’s economic data is skewed by three giant cultural institutions — the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of Fine Arts, and WGBH — all $75 million-plus organizations in terms of spending. In general, the report said, Boston’s nonprofit arts organizations, lacking foundation support and public funding, depend inordinately on ticket sales and individual donations.


One risk is that an arts sector that relies on ticket sales could become hesitant to present new work that challenges the public to think in new ways. The report also suggests that the arts community, as its constituted now, is not as well-equipped as it could be to respond to the shifting demographics of the city.

Both the city and the state should take the lead in determining what kind of arts future the city and region are going to have. The $1 million increase in city funding outlined by Mayor Walsh is an important step.

Governor Baker’s support of the arts has been more circumspect. Last year he vetoed important legislation to establish a percent-for-art program (Massachusetts is the only state in New England without one), and also vetoed an increase in funding for the Massachusetts Cultural Council (the veto was overridden by the Legislature).

Public leadership inspires the confidence of private corporate and foundation funders. Baker has the chance to take a leadership role in supporting the region’s delicate cultural ecosystem, just as he (along with Walsh) did in securing General Electric’s move to Boston. The GE initiative was about, among other things, preventing the erosion of Boston’s leadership role in tech and innovation as well as creating jobs. The region can no less afford to be complacent about the status quo of in the cultural community, another sector all too familiar with the concept of “brain drain.” Just ask any artist who’s moved to New York.