Curtains for Boston’s Theater District?

The city's historic stages are in crisis. Why isn't Marty Walsh, the self-described 'arts mayor,' doing more to save them?


When he campaigned for the top job at City Hall, then–Dorchester State Representative Marty Walsh billed himself as the “arts mayor,” promising to add a cabinet-level arts position if elected. It certainly helped that he had Joyce Linehan, a longtime veteran of Boston’s culture wars, in his corner. After Walsh was elected, he swiftly made good on his campaign promise and hired Julie Burros, a Chicago arts administrator, as the city’s first arts commissioner in many years. It made for positive headlines and good optics. But as a series of troubles erupted in the Theater District this fall, Mayor Walsh was curiously absent. So was his arts czar.

Over the course of just three days in October, the Huntington Theatre Company announced it had dissolved its partnership with Boston University after 33 years, leaving it potentially without a main stage; Boston Lyric Opera revealed that it was leaving the Shubert Theatre, where it has performed for 18 years; and it became public that Emerson College planned to convert the fabled Colonial Theatre into a student activity center, complete with a dining hall. These startling events came on the heels of the announcement that Citigroup is skipping town and ending its sponsorship of the Citi Performing Arts Center, which includes the Shubert and Wang theaters.

It suddenly looked as if the city’s theater ecosystem was imploding under Walsh’s watch. Boston desperately needed City Hall to wield its clout so that a pair of long-standing institutions would not be left dark. But in the crucial weeks after the announcements, where was the arts mayor? Where was the bully pulpit? Arts czar Burros did not emerge as a public warrior. Instead, she issued noncommittal statements saying the city was looking for “creative solutions.”

The timing of the Theater District’s crisis couldn’t be more ironic. Walsh’s administration is currently in the middle of a yearlong process to formulate a comprehensive arts master plan—which it calls “Boston Creates.” That project has focused on what the city’s residents want from the arts scene—but it has also taken City Hall’s eye off the larger problems in plain view. That was abundantly clear in early November, when Walsh spoke at a packed Boston Creates town-hall meeting at the Boston Latin School. Walsh said he hadn’t been engaged in the planning process himself—he said he wants the people of Boston to decide the future of the city’s arts landscape. “I don’t have a vision,” he said, quickly adding, “I am not going to tell the people what I feel the arts and culture community should be doing in the city of Boston.”

Compare Walsh’s response with what happened in 2003, when the city faced another crisis in the Theater District. Back then, the Wang Center for the Performing Arts—now the Citi Performing Arts Center, the same one Citi is pulling out of—summarily booted the Boston Ballet’s beloved production of The Nutcracker to make room for a carpetbagging production of New York’s Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The next morning, Mayor Thomas Menino was on the phone trying to secure the Hynes Convention Center as a new home for the ballet. (Thankfully, that never happened—right sentiment, absolutely wrong venue.) Menino worked behind the scenes for months to seal a deal for the ballet, which leased the newly restored Boston Opera House at affordable rates and eventually took its toe shoes and tutus there for its entire season.

And that wasn’t the only time Menino used his political muscle to foster the arts—he was no aesthete, but he knew that Bostonians cherished the theater. He used his considerable influence to ensure that the Huntington and the Boston Center for the Arts were able to build the Calderwood Pavilion, which opened in 2004 and helped revitalize the South End. When Menino first ran for mayor, in 1993, he proposed a one percent hotel tax to generate arts funding, and he was publicly supported by a coalition of arts leaders including Citi/Wang president Josiah Spaulding. The point being: If Walsh wants to tout himself as the arts mayor, he needs to act swiftly and publicly when a crisis emerges.

Instead, the mayor’s office offered only weak platitudes. Weeks after the Theater District meltdown, I called Julie Burros to find out whether any city involvement was forthcoming. She told me she is adding a staff person in her office who will be tasked with studying the city’s arts spaces. Joyce Linehan, who is both an advocate for the arts and Walsh’s chief of policy, told me she was pushing her boss to greenlight a new “facilities study.” That study, which Walsh officially announced in early November, will take at least six months to complete, and is almost certain to tell us what the arts community has known for decades: The city sorely needs a multiuse performing-arts center, the kind of venue that could provide a home for the Boston Ballet and the Boston Lyric Opera. (It hasn’t had a proper home for opera since the original Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue was razed in 1958.)

But a facilities study doesn’t mean a solution is coming. As we head into the winter, the fate of several major Boston arts institutions are still up in the air. The Shubert can’t accommodate large-scale opera, which requires sophisticated technology, grand sets, and, above all, excellent acoustics. “Why is there not a venue or home for some of the major cultural performing-arts institutions that produce their work here?” BLO artistic director Esther Nelson asks. The BLO has performed in unconventional spaces in the past, and can do so again until it lands an appropriate home, but that is a short-term solution.

At the Huntington Theatre, managing director Michael Maso now says he wants to partner with a private developer to buy the Boston University Theatre and create a mixed-use complex—a plan that could help the city by livening up a tired block of Huntington Avenue. Maso has done it before—the Huntington raised $24 million to pull off the Calderwood project. He’s already rolling up his sleeves, but he is not depending on the city’s help: “Ultimately,“ he says, “the Huntington needs to solve our own problems.”

Linehan told me the city was caught off-guard by the breakdown of the relationship between Boston University and the Huntington Theatre—even though talks between the two organizations had been ongoing for two years. That’s not a good omen, since as the Huntington goes, so goes Boston theater. The Huntington, after all, operates the Calderwood at an annual $400,000 loss in order to give affordable rates to some of the smaller yet vital troupes in town, such as SpeakEasy Stage Company and Company One. If it loses its main stage and has to produce all of its work at the Calderwood—even intermittently—those smaller companies, which provide a training ground for local actors and playwrights, could be left homeless. If they go away? “It would cause a rupture in the ecology of the theater,” Maso says.

Linehan, who has been a fixture on the local arts and music scenes for decades, agrees. “If a company goes dark for a period, usually it just stays dark. That can’t happen,” she says. At the town-hall meeting, Walsh said he is now having “conversations” with all of the players, but that he can’t tell them what to do. His predecessor felt differently. Note to Marty Walsh: Pick. Up. The. Phone.