The draft of the 10-year plan for the city’s cultural future released on Monday by Boston Creates, under the auspices of the mayor’s office, offered telling diagnostics about the health of the city’s cultural sector and made admirable assertions about the value of arts to the city and its neighborhoods. One would expect no less — after all, Mayor Marty Walsh was elected, in part, on his promise to be “the arts mayor.” And the plan delivers on that promise, in part, by laying out important priorities in areas like education and inclusiveness – essential elements of any programming in Boston.
But there were at least a couple of disappointments. For one, although the draft was just released on Monday, the public comment period (at the Boston Creates website) ends Monday, May 16. That’s barely enough time for the many stakeholders in the Boston cultural scene (essentially, everybody) to read the 34-page document and respond. For another, although the plan reported many of Boston’s well-known challenges (the flight of artists schooled and trained here, the lack of infrastructure in the form of facilities and affordable living and working spaces for artists), it offered few specifics on strategies or funds to fix them.
To be fair, it looked back in January like Walsh was taking the right initial steps in creating an arts plan for the city. He allocated $1 million to arts-related funding — for projects like an artist-in-residence program for the city’s Centers for Youth & Families, competitive grants for individual artists, and an artist resource desk at City Hall. These are all grass-roots efforts that will help sustain artists who live and work here.
But the draft plan offers little clear explanation of how the city is going to get beyond these initial steps. More effort is needed to address Boston’s specific needs; there is virtually no mention of the theater district or the pending changes at the Huntington Theatre Company, a major force in the city’s performing arts infrastructure. And, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of arts funding, it keeps reiterating the limits of city government.
Those limits are very real: Boston, like all of the Commonwealth’s municipalities, cannot levy taxes (such as hotel taxes) without the permission of the Legislature. Proposition 2½ limits how much the city can raise property taxes (which account for 67 percent of the city’s total revenue). What’s more, 50 percent of that land is tax exempt (owned by educational, medical, or religious institutions).
These factors are all well known. What’s needed is a means of making up for that deficit. There is discussion of public-private partnerships, but no clear action plan. Only the assertion that the “identification of a sustainable revenue stream for arts and culture must be strategic, and will take time.”
The plan reports on the feedback from a variety of sources, including town halls, community conversations, and focus groups, all highlighting important concerns. But it does not deliver clearly defined action items or a timeline for completing them. It has been presented as a work in progress, and its introduction promises to “share more details about implementation” when a final draft is released in June. One would hope so — there are plenty of details that remain to be shared.
In an era of severe budgetary stress (the House’s proposed state budget calls for a cut in the arts from $17 million to $14 million), the city and state collaborated to provide GE with $120 million in incentives to move here. If Mayor Walsh wants the city’s arts and culture scene to thrive, he’ll have to as creative and as focused as he was in luring GE.