Culture Clubber

Julie Burros takes the reins as Boston’s first chief of arts and culture in more than 20 years.

julie burros

Photograph by Christopher Churchill

On an unusually warm January day, Julie Burros is finishing up her afternoon meetings before heading off to the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Necessary Monsters, the latest dark comedy from local playwright John Kuntz. “It’s closing this weekend!” she says with both excitement and anticipation. Since arriving here in November, Burros has been immersing herself in Boston’s art scene, seeing shows and visiting museums with admirable gusto. Although she hails from Chicago, she’s no stranger to Boston, having attended a Harvard Graduate School of Design summer program back in 1988. This time around, however, she’s calling the West End home, walking daily to her new gig at City Hall. Here, she dishes on the future of Boston as an arts hub, and why orange really is the new black.

So for the uninitiated, what exactly is an arts czar?

Well, to be honest, I’m not fond of the word “czar.” As commissioner, my role is to oversee the Office of Arts and Culture and the Boston Cultural Council—which is primarily a grant-making entity—and the Boston Arts Commission, which is concerned with public art. We’ve got exhibitions we work on, we own the Strand Theatre, and we’re involved in some public programs as well. But the big undertaking is to do a cultural plan for Boston.

What’s involved in creating a cultural plan for the city?

It’s going to include a public engagement process—so lots of meetings—and we’re still interviewing consulting teams that will help us lay out the vision for how arts and culture will interact with the daily lives of Bostonians over the next 10 to 15 years. Think of it as a road map for elevating the city to the status of a municipal arts leader.

What drew you back to Boston?
The list of cities that I would have left Chicago for is not very long: Portland, Oregon; London; Copenhagen; maybe New Orleans; and Boston. Here we’ve got all these great big-city things combined with this incredibly walkable, accessible, beautiful city fabric. Currently I’m enjoying the fact that Boston isn’t on a grid—you experience it in a very novel, joyous way. Walking around the streets gives you these beautiful vistas.

What’s your personal design aesthetic?

I’m obsessed with Danish modern. That’s why Copenhagen makes my list. In fact, I love things that are orange because it’s the perfect color for Danish-modern anything—you know, that clean, bright, modern look.

We hear you have a pretty extensive art collection.

It’s definitely fewer than a hundred pieces—mostly contemporary, but a couple of artists are no longer around. I have some abstract pieces and mostly work by Chicago artists. I’m desperately trying to fit stuff on the walls of my new apartment. Things are stacked up all over the place right now.

Tell us about your past experiences in the arts and what you bring to your new position.

I worked at Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events for 14 years, during which time I was involved in many different projects, including creating a cultural plan for the city. I also oversaw a historical house museum, worked on grant-making policy, and worked on the beginnings of a public-art plan that was ongoing when I left. I’d also love to point out that because I was in city government for more than 18 years, I’ve become very good at collaborating with other city departments and public agencies. The takeaway for an agency with a small budget and limited resources like ours is to work creatively with other departments to maximize and combine resources on projects that are win-win.

Our arts scene is notoriously underappreciated. What can we learn from a city like Chicago?

Different cities have different strengths. Chicago has incredibly robust support in the public sector; the mayor is a champion of the arts, and so is the first lady. Having that political will is enormously helpful from the get-go. I think that’s part of the reason why Mayor Marty Walsh wanted a cabinet-level commissioner to really champion the arts in a tangible way and demonstrate the political will to have a thriving arts scene. Maybe that’s the biggest takeaway from Chicago: bringing in municipal-arts expertise to officially grow the community. But I’m a big fan of looking at best practices wherever they might be. I’ve looked at things Seattle was doing that I wished I could’ve imported to Chicago.

You served as an architectural docent for 15 years. Did that give you new perspective on buildings, design, and city planning?

When you do the same tour over and over again, you learn how to explain things incredibly clearly. Since I was experiencing the city with new people all the time, I was able to see the city in different ways. I can hardly draw, but I’ve also tried to practice sketching because when you do that, you see things in a new way.

What are your personal goals for your first year?

I want to see as much of the cultural community as I can and experience things firsthand. I’ve heard the restaurant scene is great, and there are so many bakeries here! Downtown Chicago had almost no bakeries. I love the little shops. Haymarket is awesome. I just want to explore and get to know the real Boston.