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The Art of Making Arts Voters: In Beantown, It Takes a Dab of Politician

MASSCreative's "Create the Vote" campaign calls for an arts advocate to take office as Boston's first new mayor in 20 years.

(photo courtesy of MASSCreative)

New York voters recently got a taste of the potential changes a new mayor could make to the city's arts budget (for better or worse) during the mayoral arts forum held at Columbia University on July 30. But in Boston, where Mayor Thomas Menino will soon step down from his post after a record five terms and 20 years in office, the stakes surrounding these potential changes in arts funding are even higher. While the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (the largest cultural funding agency in the nation) enjoyed a 2013 fiscal year expense budget of $150.1 million, Boston's operating budget for the Mayor's Office of Arts, Tourism, and Special Events is currently a meager $1.1 million ($1.86 per capita). The city's annual arts spending consistently ranks in the bottom five of the country's 30 largest cities, falling behind both San Francisco ($10 million) and Seattle ($7.5 million).

As Boston residents have witnessed over the past several decades, new leaders with fresh ideas to support Boston's creative community are few and far between. Mayor Menino's predecessor, Raymond L. Flynn, served a total of nine years after winning two reelection campaigns, while the mayor before him, Kevin H. White, completed four full terms (16 years) in office. "Mayors of Boston…we don't turn them over very fast here," said Julie Hennrikus, executive director of StageSource, a Boston-based arts service organization. "This is a big opportunity…and I think it's important for people to know what the candidates' visions are."

The election offers a rare opportunity to bring much needed, sweeping changes to the way city government addresses arts funding. But rather than waiting passively for the November election to seal the fate of arts funding in Boston for what could potentially be another two decades, StageSource has partnered with a new arts-advocacy organization, MASSCreative. Together, their Create the Vote campaign aims to engage Boston's artistic community in the political discussion.

MASSCreative was founded less than one year ago, in October 2012, but it has already established itself as a powerful political advocate for artists in Massachusetts. Within the first few months of its founding, the organization launched a campaign to increase the amount of money Massachusetts allocates annually to the state arts agency. "Over the past seven years it's been half of what it was a decade ago. It's been basically flatlined for the past seven years," said MASSCreative Executive Director Matthew Wilson. "Through our work, we got a 17 percent increase in the state's investment… It was the organizing and advocacy work we did in bringing together the community [that made] that happen."

Now, with that early win under its belt, MASSCreative has set its sights on Boston's upcoming mayoral election. "Really, for the first time in twenty years, we're going to have a real serious discussion about the vision [for] Boston over the next five, ten, fifteen years," said Wilson. "The idea of the Create the Vote coalition is to bring together all the institutions and artists in Boston to engage in a nonpartisan way in this campaign. We're not endorsing any candidate. The idea is: How do we make sure that the candidates have arts culture and creativity as one of their priorities?"

To that end, MASSCreative has been gathering groups of arts leaders in the Boston area to meet with candidates and voice their ideas about how they would like to see the arts represented in candidates' platforms. The organization will also host a forum on the arts on September 9. There, attendees will be able to ask candidates direct questions about their plans for the city's arts budget.

One of the primary goals of the Create the Vote campaign is to register 10,000 Boston residents as "arts voters," or voters for whom the arts will be a top priority come November when they cast their votes. "We just need to be better advocates," Hennrikus said. "No matter where you work, no matter what you do, we all need to be part of this and talk about ourselves as arts voters."

MASSCreative has been working to encourage theaters, dance companies, museums, and other arts organizations throughout Boston to get involved in the campaign and inspire their patrons to become arts voters as well. While a number of them are jumping at the chance to take on such an active role in the election, many turn gun-shy at the mention of the dreaded "p" word: politics.

"Some groups have lawyers that just scare people," explained Wilson. "They put the fear of God in them to get engaged in this. [But they] have the legal right to get engaged in advocacy and elections as long as they are not favoring any particular candidate… Advocacy and engagement in public policy needs to be a piece of each institution's mission."

SpeakEasy Stage Company Artistic Director Paul Daigneault.
(© Stratton McCrady)
Paul Daigneault exemplifies this message as artistic director of Boston's SpeakEasy Stage Company. In fact, he believes that to filter politics out of art would contradict the nature of art itself. "The arts are inherently political," Daigneault argued. "They are used to incite change. Brecht's works created riots in the streets. The events in politics will inspire an artist to create a piece of work, whether it's a sculpture or a piece of theater."

Daigneault has found that it is not only possible to strike an appropriate balance between art and politics, but it is essential to the future of the artistic community. "My philosophy is — and these are my instructions to my staff — it's OK to be political about the arts [and] to advocate for theater and culture in Boston because it is such an important part of the fabric of our city… It's not our job to be advocating for candidates — it's our job to be advocating for something that's ultimately going to help our organizations thrive and help this city continue to grow."

As a longtime arts administrator, Hennrikus has found that the greatest obstacle to this growth is the tendency for people to regard the arts as something "extra."

"It's not extra," she said. "The cultural vibrancy of a community is how we're remembered. It's how success is measured. It's good for the creative economy, it's good for the soul, it affects tourism, it affects education, it affects everything. Too often, ‘the arts' gets under everyone else's umbrella as ‘…and the arts.' We're just saying, ‘the arts themselves.'"

If you wish to pledge to be an Arts Voter, click here.

(photo courtesy of MASSCreative)