Q&A: Why Aren’t the Arts As Big As Sports in Boston?

The Boston Foundation's Allyson Esposito and ArtsBoston's Catherine Peterson explain what we need to advance Boston as a major-league cultural city.

museum of fine arts

The MFA entrance. / Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

As anyone in the world knows, we’re a sports town in such a monomaniacal way that so often it seems to leave little room for arts and culture in our daily conversations and how we identify our city and region. To find out how the arts can be part of the popular conversation, we spoke to Allyson Esposito, senior director of arts and culture at the Boston Foundation, who came to us three years from Chicago, a town that has managed to worship its theater, music, architecture, and fine arts alongside its championship sports teams. Also weighing in was Catherine Peterson, executive director of ArtsBoston, which promotes local arts through its calendar of cultural offerings and its BosTix discount ticketing service. Perhaps their suggestions will finally help us obsess just as much about the Museum of Fine Arts or Company One as we do the Sox, Pats, C’s, and B’s.

When you think of forging Boston’s identity as an arts town, where could we do it better?

Esposito: For one thing, when you come in Logan Airport, you see a lot about sports, but you don’t see the same signage for the arts. And then you think about how near Fenway there are all these arts and cultural institutions within walking distance, but you don’t feel their presence. If it were Chicago, the neighborhood would be cross-programmed so it could also have a cultural identity as well and be more easily navigated. And then outside of the big institutions, there’s a bunch of art and new creation that’s bubbling up that would appeal to younger generations that are coming here and to people of color that are living in the city, but they’re doing it with very little visibility.

Peterson: Boston has a lineup of artistic all-stars along with a deep bench that is the envy of other cities. I think about our starters—standouts like the BSO or Gardner Museum. But we are also home to some of the really great training grounds for the stars of the future at Berklee, Boston Conservatory, New England Conservatory, and the training programs at our universities. What we don’t have is the venue infrastructure to support the full ecosystem of arts happening in Boston, especially rehearsal space. It sounds boring, but can you imagine the Pats holding pre-season practice sessions at an elementary school ball field? We also really need to build out more affordable space for our fringe and small organizations, and a decent sized house with great acoustics for opera.

Who do you think our biggest arts rival is, in the same way that we always think of New York as our sports rival?

Esposito: People always want to make a comparison to New York City, but I don’t go along with that analogy, because you’re always going to lose. I’d rather compare us to San Francisco. It has a similar size and density, it has a big innovation economy, and is facing the challenges of rapid development.

Peterson: I’d say Chicago. They’ve grabbed the theater crown outside of NYC, with theater throughout the city, not just downtown. They are putting on performances in storefronts, not just traditional venues, and they have really nurtured culturally specific organizations, not just predominantly white organizations.

Esposito: This summer Catherine Morris launched the Black Arts & Music Soul Festival in Franklin Park. It took two years to put together and it was an amazing opportunity, but in Chicago, something like that would be programmed every single weekend in the summer.

How does it compare to other rival cities in terms of funding, infrastructure, and talent, and in terms of building up a team roster and keeping it?

Esposito: The Boston Foundation released a report in 2016 that essentially said that Boston has the lowest per capita government funding for the arts. The city at least has had an incremental increase in funding, but there are not enough resources in human capital or dollars. Thanks to the cost of living and lack of artists’ space here, if you don’t have an arts job in academia here, it’s hard to stay.

Peterson: Let’s just say that to stay in the big leagues, we need some fresh investment.  Bostonians are very generous in their individual support of the arts, but compared to Chicago, New York, [and] Philadelphia, we just are not as blessed with a large number of foundations and corporations and especially government support. The results that the Boston Foundation study found are simply unacceptable. It’s time to address this with a dedicated revenue stream for the arts that backs up the rallying cry that our Boston Creates cultural plan captured.

On a positive note, where do you think we excel beyond other cities or where we’re on our way to changing the conversation?

Peterson: Boston is the early-music capital of America! In addition to the Boston Early Music Festival—both the annual concert/opera offerings and the dazzling bi-annual festival—we have the stellar Handel + Haydn Society, Boston Baroque, Blue Heron…the list is long and mightily impressive.

Esposito: There a lot of places where the city shines. The Record Co. is a great place helping hundreds of musicians afford studio time to record. Jacqui Parker, who runs Our Place Theatre Company, has been really working to bring in many actors and artists of color. What the ICA is doing in East Boston right now is really interesting, with its free museum campus and how it engages the community, and responding through arts and culture to the massive development and changes that are happening very quickly there. Those are just some of the shining spots that are really moving and shaking right now, but there are so many more.