Keeping the ‘Art’ In Mayor Marty Walsh

The city’s arts and culture community is coming together to hold the mayor-elect to his campaign promises. Based on the initial outlook, they may not have much to worry about.

Photo via FIGMENT Boston

Photo via FIGMENT Boston

Leaders in Boston’s arts and culture community understand there isn’t a “one bullet” approach to restructuring the city’s permitting process to welcome more exhibits to the streets, but they have high hopes that, as Marty Walsh makes his transition into his new role as mayor, the arts scene as a whole will be a priority—as promised during the campaign.

“Everyone is kind of looking to see what happens,” said Jason Turgeon, producer of FIGMENT Boston and other events in the city. “Both candidates were strong on paper when it came to the arts, and I backed the losing guy. But Walsh put together a pretty good team and put out a [proposal] on his arts policy. He has definitely got some strong arts cred.”

Turgeon, like many other curators, organizers, and artists looking for changes to how the city runs its arts funding, distribution, and permitting processes, is “cautiously optimistic” about what’s coming down the chute when the new mayor takes the helm in a couple of weeks. “The real proof [of change] is going to come in six months to a year from now when we get to see if he has done anything at all to implement change,” Turgeon said.

As the election season came to an end in early November, Walsh promised during consecutive community forums and interviews that he has a plan in place to address the grievances expressed by artists, curators, and urban visionaries who want to turn Boston into place that harbors the arts, rivaling thriving arts cities like Chicago.

In October, when Walsh attended a community forum led by MassCreative executive director Matt Wilson and the Create the Vote Coalition, he pledged to appoint a cabinet-level arts commissioner, “… invest in arts and cultural initiatives, and implement a policy plan that integrates arts planning into other city priorities including education, economic development, public safety, housing, and transportation.”

Those promises have given Wilson hope for Boston’s future in theatre, music, and street art. “We saw a real opportunity to focus in on Boston, and we saw for the first time in 20 years that there would be a real discussion about the strengths and challenges in the city, and what it will be for the run of the next mayor,” he said. “We wanted to make sure art and culture were part of that discussion. Walsh has some great ideas and initiatives, and the community is ready to help him implement all of them. We think he will [keep his word]. He spoke from the heart on these things, and I think he recognizes arts and culture as a strong community that can address a lot of the key issues in this.”

A Promise Is a Promise, Right?

Walsh’s campaign promises, detailed in a specific list of policy initiatives, included finding and designating new grants and monetary resources for the arts sector, and a pledge to create a cabinet-level commissioner to run the show. And people are banking on it.

“I think [the arts] just needs its own separate category [in City Hall]. It requires its own attention,” said Elizabeth Devlin, founder of FLUX Boston. “I feel like within culture and tourism, you have different people with different sets of skills, and instead of approaching a lot of things shallowly, with a separate position you can approach specific things more in depth. I think it will end up happening.”

Right now, the city has a department dedicated to arts, events, and tourism, leaving the focus on art-specific projects in the dark, according to Devlin.

Joyce Linehan, co-director of Walsh’s transition team, said it’s too early to tell what will happen as he assembles his staff, but she said it would likely include a commissioner tasked with taking on the arts as its own entity, which would be created and filled following a national search.

“If you look at how the mayor-elect’s campaign went, and consider the fact that I was one of the people on his campaign very early when the table was still small, I think you can see symbolically what that means about where the arts are in the policy plan,” Linehan said. “It’s right up there with economic development, and public safety, and transportation, and all of the other big policies.”

Linehan said this is “an exciting moment in Boston history,” because they can take stock of the candidates out there, and designate the right person to get the city up to speed with expanding artistic opportunities.

She said Walsh proposed—which is not written in stone—that he would ultimately take tourism out of its current department, and put it into the economic development cabinet, giving arts a place of its own at City Hall. “They will all be working together, but there would be a position specifically for arts and culture in the form of a commissioner,” she said.

Before he was mayor:

One of the most common complaints heard from local artists and urban planners has been that the permitting process to get approval for events and cultural gatherings is so tedious under the Menino administration that it almost makes pursuing an opportunity to engage the public not worth the effort.

“There have been so many things that could have happened, and that could have been done for free if they just sort of said ‘OK,’” said Devlin. “It doesn’t have to come down to a monetary thing if you want to have an installation in an alleyway and the private building says OK, let them do it, rather than going about to all of these committees, zoning meetings, and gathering the permits.”

This was a major gripe for Turgeon, who knocked heads with the city this past spring during a lengthy permitting ordeal when putting together the Bartlett Yards event, an art and music festival that featured mural painters and graffiti artists.

Devlin said she hopes Walsh can also lift the red tape that often keeps curators like herself, who want to collaborate on projects with other institutions or business, from moving forward. She said she understands that everything won’t magically change overnight—or even in the first 100 days in office—but as time progresses Devlin expects at least some momentum to pick up steam.

“We can’t expect a new museum erected or a million dollars going into the arts right away, but the most important thing is that [Walsh] be open to, and to listen to, the people in the community who know what they are doing,” she said. “A new mayor should trust the voices of the informed public basically to help guide the agenda.”

Most in the community don’t argue that Menino has helped bring some great opportunities to the city, especially recently, but Walsh will become the first mayor in the last two decades to have the opportunity to take a fresh approach to bolstering the arts community.

In an interview with Boston, just weeks ahead of Election Day, Walsh said ditching that process would be a main focus, and he vowed to streamline it to make it less hectic for organizers.

Making sure it happens:

Since campaign promises are just that—promises—Turgeon, Wilson, and Ron Mallis, founder of the Boston APP/Lab, which supports and works on bringing more art to public spaces, are taking a page out of the book from artists in New York City, who are writing up an open letter to newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Mallis, who was also involved with the Create the Vote Coalition, said Walsh recognized the obstacles currently in play that make putting together installations and events difficult for curators. “All of that is good, but at the same time, that does not relieve anybody from continuing to emphasize that yes, this is important, and there is a variety of things that need to be done and need to be examined. I am hoping all of that will occur,” he said. “There needs to be an ongoing kind of lobbying on the part of the arts community, acknowledging that we have gotten this far, and the pressure needs to be kept up.”

Besides putting together the letter, Mallis threw his hat in the ring to represent the arts on Walsh’s transition team, but doesn’t know if he will be selected. “He has one or two other items on his plate right now, obviously, but I do think there will be opportunities to speak with him, and to lobby the issues that surfaced during the mayoral campaign, making sure they are not forgotten about,” said Mallis.

Local colleges and universities are also making sure the conversation happens. On Friday, during a panel discussion at Berklee College of Music, presidents from Berklee, MassArt, Emerson, and the Boston Conservatory will meet to formulate a list of recommendations for the incoming administration that would “create a more fertile landscape for artists and arts education in Boston.”

They will take up issues about the relationship between arts institutions and public schools, Boston “as a magnet for aspiring and working artists,” and arts colleges as sources of employment, entertainment, and enlightenment, keeping Walsh’s campaign pledges on the radar.

But through all the talks, promises, proposals, and hopes and dreams for what could be in Boston, as Devlin notes, it’s not just on Walsh to make the city a better place for the arts.

“It’s wait and see. I just think that there are lots of people who have great ideas and a large percentage never end up coming to fruition, and I think it’s because there is no funding, or maybe they are not taken seriously. So I think there would have to be a shift in perceptions or a shift in openness to let these things happen,” she said. “I have hope, but it’s not Marty Walsh’s deal to change everything for us. We all have a responsibility to do it. He just has to be open and listen and say OK, and we can be all the worker bees and we can do it. The potential is there to be better.”