Let’s build Massachusetts by building the arts

OCTOBER 01, 2017

The Legislature’s override of Governor Baker’s veto of its arts budget on Thursday was a bittersweet victory for artists, advocates, and others who care about arts and culture in the Commonwealth. It was heartening to see lawmakers reject Baker’s budget reduction so soundly — the House, earlier this month, by a margin of 138-14, the Senate, last week, by 37-0. But the bitter news is that arts funding now remains flat, at $14 million, the second year of level funding, after several years of modest increases. Arts funding is moving in the wrong direction, and that needs to change.

This page has long argued that the arts are not mere side-dishes to life across the Commonwealth, but essential to it. Multiple studies have shown how the presence of the visual and performing arts — music, theater, dance, painting, and sculpture among them — contribute to what state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg recently called “a fully operational society.” A recent report from nonprofit Americans for the Arts showed that the arts contributed to the Massachusetts economy to the tune of $2.2 billion in jobs and spending in fiscal year 2015. It has also been shown that arts education enhances student performance across the disciplines, and that the presence of arts institutions such as theaters and galleries has helped reduce crime in their neighborhoods.

And there is more evidence than ever that the arts are not only economic and social drivers in cultural tourist centers like Boston, but also in the Commonwealth’s Gateway Cities, former industrial centers seeking to rebuild their economies.

Consider these findings from the Americans for the Arts report:

  • The City of Worcester reported that the area’s nonprofit arts and cultural institutions generated $125.7 million in economic activity, supporting 4,062 jobs.

Throughout this old industrial town, a new narrative is being told that celebrates Lynn as a “City of Firsts” rather than a “City of Sin.’’

  • New Bedford’s AHA! initiative(Art, History & Architecture) reported that its free downtown cultural nights program returned $809,000 in economic activity on an investment of $33,750 from a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant.
  • Springfield reported $50 million in industry spending, with 1,500 jobs generating $26.9 million in household income.
  • Lowell reported $12.3 million in spending, supporting 444 jobs generating $6.7 million in household income.

he effects of the arts on municipalities has been recognized nationwide. The National League of Cities, an advocacy group for municipal officials, released a report in June finding that not only were the arts key to economic development — the cities’ top concern — but also to issues like public safety, infrastructure, and education. What’s more, programs like those in New Bedford and Lynn show that arts programs promote broad community engagement, crossing racial, ethnic, and socio-economic lines. Arts activity includes everything from gallery shows to festivals, from the “Fluff Festival” in Somerville to the popular Lowell Folk Festival. The support for the arts at the local level has been one of the reasons that the advocacy group MASSCreative has been supporting debates across the Commonwealth on arts funding.

TWO  prime examples? Look no further than Lowell and Lynn.

“Beyond Walls,” a large-scale, ambitious placemaking project, gave downtown Lynn a makeover this summer. It launched with a 10-day festival in July, when 15 street murals were painted by 20 local and international artists of Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cambodian origin, among others. Al Wilson, a former tech executive from Marblehead, conceived the idea and founded the nonprofit behind it after consulting community leaders. With the murals, he wanted to create something similar to Wynwood Walls — a park featuring murals by world-class artists that has revitalized the warehouse district in Miami — in one of the most diverse cities in the Commonwealth.

By and large, the vibrant murals reflect the heritage of immigrants in Lynn. But the project goes well beyond walls in its scope. It also includes light installations under the MBTA’s elevated tracks, vintage neon artwork, and a sculpture including the first jet engine ever to be built in the United States, manufactured in Lynn 75 years ago.

The aim was to have a multiplying economic effect. “We wanted to encourage people to walk and stay out, and businesses to stay open,” said Wilson. The group said it will release a third-party economic impact report later this year, but the anecdotal evidence is telling. Wilson said a popular coffee shop in downtown experienced three to six times as many customers during the festival, and twice as many since the murals went up. “They’re now considering opening it on Sundays,” Wilson said, adding that barely any shops are open on Sundays in the area.

What’s more impressive about “Beyond Walls” is that it started with a modest state investment from MassDevelopment, the state’s economic development and finance agency, through a program that offers matching funds of up to $50,000 to a crowdfunded, community-driven project. After that, Lynn’s “Beyond Walls” got momentum and catalyzed support from foundations and corporations, including a $200,000 grant from the Barr Foundation.

Voters need to make their desire for arts funding known. And officeholders need to pay attention.

A relatively small amount of state support in the right areas can help change the perception of a downtown and be at least a small part of the transformation of aging industrial cities in a post-industrial era. As the Commonwealth strives to repair, refurbish, and build out such core components of infrastructure as transit systems and roads and bridges, it’s too easy to dismiss arts as a frill. Former industrial cities have empty and underutilized buildings that are screaming for initiatives like “Beyond Walls.” Building a diverse sense of community at the street level is an essential part of creating neighborhoods where people want to live their lives — and put down roots.

Investing in the arts is also a way of promoting inclusion. For a powerful example, consider Lowell, with its large Cambodian population. Last week, a 7-foot, 6,000-pound monument was unveiled commemorating the victims of the Khmer Rouge purge. The memorial is a symbol of both tragic events and the solidity of the Cambodian community there.

Lowell’s first Cambodian immigrants arrived in the late 1970s. “We wanted to honor Cambodian refugees but also the city’s ability to unify,” said Lowell City Councilor Rodney Elliot. The monument was made by Yary Livan, a nationally renowned, local potter who uses a rare ceramics technique. Livan teaches ceramic arts at Middlesex Community College and has a studio in the Western Avenue Lofts, one of the largest artist communities in the area.

The Lowell monument, which cost about $40,000, was funded privately. But foundation dollars have become a critical part of any public art project these days. Still, private money alone is not enough.

Public funding guarantees public oversight and accountability, and ensures that community needs, and not corporate taste, will drive decision-making. It also can help galvanize communities that might otherwise feel marginalized. As a public report by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies has noted, “Public funding for the arts has a proven track record of reaching underserved communities” in a way the foundation or private support alone does not.

This is not to say that our state and municipal leaders should abandon traditional economic development strategies— like the $120 million in incentives the state offered to General Electric, or the current campaign to win Amazon. But the arts are a business that already exists, one that creates dollars and builds sustainable communities along the way. Over years, decades, or centuries, corporations come and go. The cities and towns of the Commonwealth are here to stay.

In public forums and town meetings, and at the ballot box, voters need to make their desire for arts funding known. And officeholders need to pay attention.

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