The auditorium at English High School on McBride Street here buzzed with excitement on the evening of June 2 as nearly all the seats were filled with artists and art supporters from around the city. The “Boston Creates Town Hall” launched the first comprehensive arts and cultural planning process for Boston anyone can remember.
Mayor Marty Walsh promised when campaigning to create the first Office of Arts and Culture headed by a cabinet-level chief. Julie Burros was hired away from the City of Chicago to be that chief last December.
The goal of the process, guided by consultants from the Cultural Planning Group, is to document the “cultural assets” of the city and develop a Cultural Plan by June, 2016, “that will position Boston as a municipal arts leader,” according to a press release from the City.
Burros set the tone of the gathering of visual artists, musicians, theater folks, writers and representatives of nonprofit organizations and schools. She said her office wants artists across the city to have “broad buy-in” at every step of the way.
During small group sessions, gaps in communication among artists became obvious quickly. For example, a fledgling nonprofit group in one neighborhood that works to find exhibit space for artists did not know about JP Centre/South Main Streets’ First Thursday and other opportunities local artists get routinely here at local businesses and elsewhere. Support for information-sharing among existing artists in the city emerged from reports at the end of the meeting as key to the plan.
Although there was much talk about “mapping” the cultural assets of the city, planners will probably become aware that some exciting art and culture in the neighborhoods, including JP, cannot be easily pinpointed on a map.
Artists of all kinds in JP and elsewhere without an official “arts center” tend to work in private spaces; they gather in scattered public, business and nonprofit spaces, too. Those grassroots arts groups often cannot afford to buy or rent space, are not incorporated and have no paid staff. Their existence needs to be unearthed, recorded and supported in the Cultural Plan.
In response to a question near the end from a visual artist who said she and others are concerned about the shortage of work and living space, Burros said the City is committed to addressing space issues for artists. She mentioned looking at restoring vacant buildings and other possible building policy solutions for visual artists.
Using JP as a model, the plan could improve on it by suggesting subsidies for cultural groups to rent performance, gathering or work space from local businesses and nonprofits such as galleries, community centers and churches. That would be cheaper and easier than building and managing new or repurposed large structures dedicated to arts and culture—and would strengthen entire neighborhoods.
How responsive and useful the Cultural Plan turns out depends on community participation, it was said repeatedly. People can build on the creative spirit shown at the Town Hall meeting and learn more about getting involved at bostoncreates.org.