Boston’s Creative Crisis
The Boston Creates steering committee, meanwhile, a group of top city officials and seasoned arts leaders, pushed the issues of accountability and funding from the outset. At a meeting at City Hall last September, Ted Landsmark, an architect, lawyer, and member of the Boston Redevelopment Authority board, cautioned, “People can make promises, but we can’t hold them accountable for delivering on a promise.” Several arts administrators, including Huntington Theatre Company managing director Michael Maso, voiced concerns that the city’s bedrock cultural institutions were being left out of the conversation. (They were eventually invited to convene as a group.)
That steering committee meeting took place on a gloomy day in late September, and for some reason, Maso kept leaving the room to talk on his cell phone. At one point, he asked Linehan to step outside, and the two held an intense conversation while the CPG consultants urged the committee members to complete a “visioning” exercise. The need for adequate performing facilities was a prominent theme. Does the city, Boston Baroque executive director Miguel Rodriguez asked, have the performing spaces it needs for its existing institutions to thrive?
It wouldn’t take long for that question to be answered.
Within three days in early October, in the midst of the Boston Creates process, a series of announcements rocked the city’s cultural community. The Globe broke the story that Emerson College was considering plans to turn the fabled Colonial Theatre into a student cafeteria. The Huntington announced that Boston University was selling the BU Theatre, the Huntington’s home for 33 years. It was suddenly clear why Maso had excused himself during the “visioning” exercise. Forget vision. He had a real-life crisis to handle. And then Boston Lyric Opera announced that it was leaving the Shubert Theatre and looking for a suitable home for its productions.
Criticism was rapid and fierce, and it came down heavily on the Walsh administration and Emerson College president Lee Pelton, who cochairs the leadership council with Barr president Jim Canales. The mayor remained silent for several weeks. The next town hall meeting was scheduled to take place in Charlestown—on Halloween. Burros joked that Boston Creates should get a “candy sponsor,” but some community members grumbled that the event was not exactly convenient for families with young children. It didn’t matter.
Boston Creates suddenly changed the date and place of its town hall meeting to a few days later so the mayor could address the crowd. No need for that candy sponsor.
The mayor, at Linehan’s suggestion, commissioned a facilities study to address space issues, but the process won’t be completed until late this month or early July.
The crisis, which left the arts community dumbfounded and appalled, brought to light a fundamental flaw in the Boston Creates planning process: It does no good to examine every twig on the ground when the whole forest is in danger of burning. And even the most democratic process needs leadership from the top. And vision.
The rescheduled town hall meeting was set for a Monday evening at Boston Latin School. The steering committee convened in a conference room at the high school just before the meeting. Representatives from CPG were also on hand to present a summary of the community-engagement process to date. And the feedback was direct. Clearly, the steering-committee members expected more concise action items and less wishful thinking. The conversation remained polite, but frustration was evident. Committee members (including Maso, Landsmark, Rodriguez, and Boston Children’s Museum president and CEO Carole Charnow) ticked off a list of items that the document did not address, including the larger cultural institutions, accountability, credibility, and a dedicated revenue stream.
Burros outright told the steering-committee members that the issue of a dedicated revenue stream might not get solved right away. She also said that Mayor Walsh did not have preconceived notions about the cultural plan and was open to suggestions. “If the mayor has a passion for nothing—is that a fair thing to say?—then we need to figure out a way to create passion,” Maso said. “We need to hijack the passion from some other cause. You can’t create a plan without him getting excited.”
But later at the town hall meeting, Walsh reiterated what Burros had said earlier. “I have not been engaged in the process because it is not my process. It is your process,’’ he said. After his public comments, he was clear about his approach to the arts. “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. You didn’t elect me for my opinions; you elected me to lead.”
In fact, the consultants had been the ones leading the process. Was it hijacked by too much in-the-clouds idealism and too little boots-on-the-ground policymaking? When asked to evaluate the consultants from CPG, one high-ranking insider simply paused. And paused. And paused.
There was no silence in January, when the consultants presented a document called “Boston Creates Cultural Plan Framework” to both the leadership council and the steering committee. It was not received well.
One participant described the document as generic and lackluster. It outlined four goals, summarized as: integrate arts and culture into all aspects of civic life, create fertile ground, keep artists in Boston, and support collective action. This was all they came up with after nine months of discussion and planning? In a word, yes. And there was no goal specifically addressing cultural equity, which had been at the forefront of all of those community gatherings. The consultants asked members of the leadership council to vote on which goals they thought were most important. “That was the point where the consultants lost me,” says Hurel, of VSA. “They lost a lot of people at that point.”
Hurel and others were vocal about adding a specific goal to address equity, which they did, and as the lone representative of the disability community, she insisted on very specific language. Groups were launched to flesh out—and beef up—each goal.
But goals alone do not make a plan. Certainly, the effort was enormous, the aims lofty, the motives sincere. But let’s be blunt: The key issues were identified very early on in the process. It shouldn’t take more than a year of visioning exercises—at a cost of $1.4 million, almost the same as Burros’s fiscal year 2016 annual department budget of $1.7 million—to pinpoint challenges and strengths that have been evident in the arts community for years and years. Privately, people in the arts community have been wondering when all of those lofty goals will translate into action.
The answer wasn’t forthcoming when Burros presided over a town hall meeting at Bunker Hill Community College in March. Remember: The Boston Creates team had promised that the first draft of the actual plan would be released at this meeting. But Burros simply reiterated the five goals (which now include a specific focus on equity). No action items. No timeline. No metrics. No funding stream.
And there was only tepid applause.
By this point, citizens who had devoted time and energy to the process were, to use Walsh’s words, hungry for more. “In theory it is great, but I don’t know how in practice it amounts to much,” Susan Chinsen, director of the Boston Asian American Film Festival and a Boston Creates team leader for Chinatown, said after the meeting. “The intention was great. But it has to be tangible. It can’t just be fruity, fluffy words.”
That meeting raised more questions than it answered. How will success be measured? Who is accountable? What is the timeline? Where is the money? A recent Boston Foundation study found that Boston falls behind other cities in corporate, foundation, and government funding for the arts. When asked directly if the city is pursuing corporate partnerships, Burros replied, “Yes, yes, yes, and yes.” Okay, but is anyone at City Hall talking to General Electric about funding the arts? The newcomer to town recently announced that it will contribute $50 million to charitable causes over the next five years—but not a penny for the arts.
Few in the arts community are willing to criticize Boston Creates publicly; one longtime arts fixture told me that many artists fear they will never work in this town again if they speak up. At the town hall meeting, it took a 23-year-old artist wearing a hat that would have made Prince proud to articulate what many in the room were afraid to say. Without mincing words, Kylila Bullard, of Poetic Change, said Boston Creates appeared to be a research organization with no accountability and no responsibility. She later told me she thinks the process is “just a whole bunch of circle talk” and that “no real change is going to come.” And she got the loudest applause of the evening.
But Burros did announce three specific deliverables that will come to fruition in the near term. The mayor earmarked $1 million for the arts in his State of the City speech in January, and about $400,000 of that will go toward grants to individual artists living in the city. The city’s Boston Artists in Residency program will expand, with a new collaboration with the Boston Centers for Youth & Families. And Burros’s office will hire a new artist resource staffer to help artists negotiate issues with City Hall.
After the less-than-enthusiastic response at the town hall, the Boston Creates team hit the ground running to turn all of those words into an actionable plan, which will be unveiled June 17 at the Americans for the Arts convention in Boston. It is unclear which version will prevail: lofty language with little substance or clear guidelines with weight. I spoke to Burros in May, when the team was deep into writing the overdue draft. The eventual plan will, in one way or another, address almost all of the issues that arose at that upbeat first town meeting, held so long ago. Burros said it will include clear action items with clear timetables, but many of those action items involve finding partners and funders, which will take time.
The plan will also call for yet more research, advocating a “cultural equity study” and a map of the city’s cultural assets. It will offer suggestions, but not clear paths to solutions to the big issues, such as a dedicated revenue stream, arts education, and artist housing. Why didn’t the Boston Creates team convene meetings to dig deep into those critical issues, which were identified at the outset of the project?
And despite the fact that she said early on that the city needs to think about implementation from day one, Burros now contended, “It isn’t an implementation plan with every action spelled out.”
As early as the first town meeting, folks were asking about accountability, but that particular issue is still in flux. “We are working on that right now,” Burros said in early May. “The other day the consultant asked, ‘Is there another city agency that does this well?’ We could not identify a model.’’
The plan could very well turn out to be a blueprint for Boston’s cultural future, but right now it is still up in the air who owns the plan, which makes accountability even more crucial. “This is a plan for the entire city, not a strategic set of to-dos for my office or city government,” Burros said. “It is going to require leadership and participation from individuals across the city.”
The initial idea was full of optimism, but it’s still unclear, given the stumbling and bumbling along the way, what will come at the end of the ambitious process. The ultimate plan will include projects in which the city is either a leader, a partner, or a catalyst, but if there is no one entity that is accountable—and no accountability process—how can the citizens who gave so much time be sure that any of the recommendations will come to pass? In a way, it all comes back to that metaphysical sandwich envisioned at the first town hall meeting. Boston is the bread; the people provide the fixings. “We are at the table,” Burros said of City Hall’s role in the plan. “But we are not necessarily setting the table.”