Boston’s Creative Crisis

By ·

julie burros boston arts culture chief

Arts and culture chief Julia Burros. “Democracy is messy,” she says. / Photograph by Christopher Churchill

It started at Joyce Linehan’s kitchen table back in 2013. She and her longtime pal, then–Dorchester State Representative Marty Walsh, were talking policy. He was running for mayor. She was a chief adviser (known to some, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, as the “decider”) and a veteran influential player in the city’s arts and music scenes. As a former rock promoter, she’d introduced many indie and punk bands to Boston audiences. As for Walsh, he introduced a bill to name the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” the official rock song of Massachusetts—at her suggestion. As the two discussed strategy, arts and culture jumped to the top of the list. Linehan is an expert on the topic, having handled publicity for such signature organizations as ArtsEmerson, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and First Night Boston. The two discussed resurrecting a cabinet-level “arts czar” position. They batted around the notion of launching a citywide cultural plan to address issues that have plagued Boston’s arts community for years: underserved neighborhoods, unaffordable artist housing, insufficient funding, and inadequate facilities.

The seeds laid during that table talk were planted more firmly when officials from the Barr Foundation approached the campaign, suggesting that they would fund an arts planning process plan if Walsh were elected.

Elected, he was, after courting the arts community and billing himself as the “arts mayor.” Fast-forward. Walsh made good on his promise to hire a chief of arts and culture, bringing in Julie Burros from Chicago in 2014. Linehan became chief of policy, and in April 2015, the city announced Boston Creates, a sweeping initiative to build a road map for the city’s cultural future.

The proposal was ambitious: The administration aimed to spend an entire year soliciting ideas from seemingly every citizen in every neighborhood. It sought to develop new ways to provide equity and access in a town long known for its silos and for the entrenched perception that certain cultural institutions are not welcoming to all. It vowed to redefine culture to equally value artists in studios, actors in theaters, and grannies in knitting circles. The vision was grand, the potential impact enormous. And the time was ripe: new mayor, new “arts czar,” new administration, new mindset.

But as the months have moved on, the tangible results have been underwhelming, and insiders have questioned whether a workable plan can emerge. A Boston Creates summary report released in March cited such ephemeral goals as creating “fertile ground,” but failed to pinpoint action items and deliverables. The yearlong, $1.4 million process—which I followed closely, attending numerous meetings over the past year—shows what can happen when governance gets muddled with handholding exercises and endless focus groups.

From the beginning, Mayor Walsh stressed that Boston Creates is not his vision: “It’s your vision,” he has told his constituents repeatedly. Indeed, back when Boston Creates was announced, folks at City Hall were upbeat and ambitious and committed to crafting what promised to be the most inclusive planning process the city had ever seen. “The big challenge is to make sure we are hearing all the voices and that everyone is represented,” Linehan said during an interview in Walsh’s office last year. “It is an open-door policy,” Walsh echoed. “You don’t have to wait for someone to ask you to the table.” And, he added, “Boston is hungry for it.”

 

Hungry, indeed.

Last June, more than 450 people crammed into the auditorium at English High School, in Jamaica Plain, to attend the first town hall meeting for Boston Creates, which is funded equally by $700,000 grants each from the Barr and Klarman foundations.

As participants streamed into the building that evening, they were urged to fill out slick nametags asking the question, “What do you create?” Responses ranged from mayhem to music to wedding cakes. Fresh-scrubbed, smiling volunteers handed out postcards emblazoned with the campaign’s bright, bold logo, bearing slogans such as “Everyone creates. What do you do?” The event had the feel of a happiness convention mixed with a neighborhood fair, but without the free samples of fruit smoothies and meat on toothpicks.

Walsh himself wasn’t in attendance, but after a performance by the English High Drum Corps, Burros took the stage to enthusiastic applause. A tall, unflashy woman with a huge smile and a preference for practical pumps, Burros, 51, is utterly without pretense. In an interview in her office before the event, she told me she would be “listening, listening, listening” because the planning process was “big, big, big”—so giant, in fact, that it would cover the “whole kit and caboodle.” At the town hall, she seemed to embody the role of upbeat arts cheerleader rather than formidable “arts czar.” “Is anyone an artist?” she asked the crowd, flashing that earnest grin, and many hands waved in the air. “Anyone work at an arts organization?” More hands. After the team roll call, the cheery Burros promised “big, new, bold gestures for Boston.”

But the pep-rally spirit dissipated when two consultants took the stage: David Plettner-Saunders, a San Diego–based consultant with the Cultural Planning Group (CPG), the firm charged with running the process, and Alan Brown, of WolfBrown, a consultancy with an office in Cambridge. Their task was to explain the so-called theoretical framework of the plan and the concept of “creative capital,” the idea that creativity is a community asset, similar to drinking water and public transportation. A woman with two small children quietly left. One longtime fixture in the arts world later noted, with incredulity, that for all the talk of inclusion, the presenters at the debut town hall were a homogenous bunch.

The energy was revived, however, when participants broke into small groups to discuss the critical question at hand: What does the city need to ensure that Boston is a vital, world-class cultural center where every citizen feels part of the creative fabric? “We will collect and review every idea,” Brown promised the crowd, “but we have time tonight for just a taste of your ideas.”

He wasn’t kidding about the taste part.

I found myself in a classroom with an animated group of people who truly reflected the city’s diverse population: all ages, all races, individual artists, administrators, community activists, and the just plain curious. A very young moderator called the meeting to attention. “Imagine a metaphysical sandwich,’’ she said. “Boston is the bread. What kind of filling are you?”

Radio silence.

With some prodding, the participants went around the room, creating a metaphysical meal. One woman chose avocado, because it’s smooth and creamy. The list included cilantro, wasabi, honey mustard, jalapeño and—my personal favorite—textured vegetable protein. It’s good for you and you can do a lot with it.

Once the sandwich drill was digested, participants dug into the real issues at hand, generating a thorough list of needs that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Boston’s arts scene: affordable artist housing, more performance and rehearsal space, increased grant money, a dedicated revenue source, a streamlined permitting process, arts education, communication, and diversity and equity. And people were already asking about accountability, implementation, and funding.

The same issues arose again and again last summer, when team leaders recruited by the city convened community meetings in 16 neighborhoods. Many of the meetings had a similar kumbaya flavor. In Roxbury, participants took turns stating their superpower. In Charlestown, attendees were asked to draw a picture of what makes them happy. “I was with a few other artists, and that wasn’t how we wanted to be spending our time,” says Mary Curtin, a longtime artist and arts promoter who lives in Charlestown.

Instead, citizens wanted to dig into serious policy. Artists want tools and support, not exercises that are better suited to a self-actualization workshop at Kripalu. When young artists can’t afford to live here, does the city really need to spend part of its $1.4 million planning budget making metaphysical sandwiches and discussing superpowers? In the neighborhoods, citizens want diverse cultures to be celebrated and acknowledged. People simply want, to echo Walsh’s words, a place at the table.

 

The scope of the planning process has been, without a doubt, one of the widest and most inclusive in city history. In addition to the town hall meetings, Boston Creates conducted 118 community conversations, 50 one-on-one meetings with stakeholders, and 35 focus groups. A full 3,224 people took an online survey, which was available in four languages. The team spent last summer distributing slick marketing flyers (“What does creativity mean to you?”) and gathering input from people at farmers’ markets and cultural festivals.

But such an exhaustive undertaking isn’t easily managed nor, apparently, easily synthesized. “Democracy is messy,” Burros told me early on in the process during an interview in her office at City Hall. “It is a beautiful, beautiful mess. You want to be inclusive. You want everyone’s voice to be heard, but you have to structure it.”

Casting such a wide net can create a lot of noise—and a fair amount of self-interest. Often, citizens have a “What’s in it for me?” attitude at public meetings, and many questions at various forums began with the pronoun “I” and addressed the concerns of a constituency of one. How do you cut through the chatter and create a tangible plan that works? “You have to think about implementation from day one,’’ Burros said. Plans that aren’t achievable, she allowed, “are a waste of time.”

As the former director of cultural planning for Chicago, Burros was instrumental in developing that city’s 2012 plan. The Boston Creates process mirrors the citywide efforts in Chicago in many ways. “This is your plan!” seems to be the mantra of both endeavors. But the machinery around the Boston process is heftier. In addition to CPG and WolfBrown, there are five other outside consulting groups involved, with a branding firm, a communications agency, and a community-engagement operation among them. And the bedrock of the process is that notion of creative capital. “For a city to be culturally vibrant, its citizens as well as its institutions need to be culturally engaged,’’ says Dennie Palmer Wolf, the principal at WolfBrown who developed the concept. “When we talk about creative capital, we are talking about the capacity of citizens to engage and enjoy and learn from and pass on heritage.”

But how do you transform abstract theory into an actual plan for an actual city that actually works? Early on in the process, Martin Cohen, of CPG, explained that the consultants would take the mountains of data from scores of meetings and subject it to quantitative and qualitative analyses to formulate the plan. He also said that the team would present a full draft at a town hall meeting in March. “At the end, we will have clear intentions,” he vowed. That was a promise that raised hopes and expectations for the meeting in March. And Wolf echoed that promise. “The challenge is to make sure it gets concrete and that the very widespread participation throughout the city is rewarded.”

 

But how many handholding exercises does it take to identify intentions that were clearly articulated at the very first town hall meeting? From the start, there was a disconnect between the “Let’s imagine” approach of the outside consultants and the “Let’s be real” attitude of local artists and administrators who are in the trenches making art flourish every day.

A group called the leadership council—comprising corporate CEOs, foundation executives, arts advocates, and such notables as Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart—met several times during the year. And at a meeting last September at the Calderwood Pavilion, these heavy hitters spent 30 minutes doing a “visioning” exercise led by CPG consultants.

“Move beyond a list of needs and wants and allow yourselves to aspire,” Plettner-Saunders, of CPG, instructed the group. The outside consulting firm, which was allocated about a third of the $1.4 million budget, was clearly the driving force behind this self-discovery approach to Boston Creates. Many council members embraced the exercise, but some had real-world issues on their minds. Nicole Agois Hurel, a program director with the special-needs arts organization VSA Massachusetts, repeatedly insisted the arts should be accessible for people with disabilities. The city’s online survey asked multiple questions about cultural and gender identification, but didn’t ask specifically about disabilities, beyond a generic question about barriers to entry. Hurel was concerned with actionable issues like transportation, accessibility, programming, and staffing.

And World Music/CrashArts executive director Maure Aronson had his feet planted firmly on the bottom line. “The question that came from our table is how do you actually fund this vision,” he said.

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.

Facilities, indeed.

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.

Radio silence.

 

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.”

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/arts-entertainment/2016/05/19/boston-creative-crisis/