"It is difficult to recall a gathering as important as this one." José Mateo did not mince words as he stood behind the podium at one end of the BCA's Cyclorama. The crowd (of educators, artists, performers, advocates, administrators—affectionately dubbed "hell-raisers" and "troublemakers") knew why it had gathered: to represent, unify, and organize the city's creative sector in light of opportunities presented by the election of a new Mayor of Boston, this 5th of November.
The non-partisan campaign, tagged #CreateTheVote, is organized by MassCreative, a state-wide advocacy group currently focusing its attention on the City of Boston. Wednesday's kickoff event wasn't directed at candidates per se, though I did spot John Connolly and Felix Arroyo early in the evening. The gist of the gathering was roughly two-fold. On the one hand, it presented a rare occasion for arts professionals from all parts of the City to connect and bond around a shared cause; on the other it was designed to recruit supporters of the arts who will take some form of action, between now and the day they cast their ballot, to ensure their sector is well represented on the new Mayor's agenda. This second part was done pretty cleverly through a text message pledge to be an arts voter, that is to make arts, culture, and creativity one of the priorities when choosing for whom to vote. MassCreative is aiming to gather a minimum of 10,000 such pledges to put before the 12 candidates.
Because the crowd was by and large well-versed in the current shortcomings of the City's arts administration, and pretty clear on what needs to be done to remedy some of the persisting issues, much of the event felt like it was preaching to the converted. To me, fun as it was, it felt redundant to have planned live performances for the crowd, most of whom attend art events on a daily or weekly basis. Of course, I was delighted to get a preview of the new Company One act, and hear slam poet Regie Gibson wax lyrical about thanatos,only I wish performers and artists themselves also had been given the opportunity to speak directly to the topic at hand.
So what was said? Linda Nathan, Executive Director of Boston Arts Academy's Center for the Arts in Education, was a rallying voice, stating that Boston artists know something about being makers, academics, as well as active citizens.
Haley House's Nina LaNegra, who spoke last, talked about "shifting the paradigm" (a phrase so cliché it made me wince) through a variety of proposed actions, from getting the Mayor to improve the quality of arts education city-wide, to acknowledging the role of art in the exercise of social justice. But beyond laying down the broad ideas, while all in essence laudable, she gave little concrete evidence of how to carry them out. There was however a number: $45 million. And another: 75. The first is the total arts budget of the city of Los Angeles, the other the amount of staff in LA's arts office. Comparatively Boston budgets $1.2 million for the arts. Now, the immediate response is Boston is a small city, nowhere near Los Angeles's population of 3.82 million people. But per capita(accounting only for the 625,087 people in Boston "proper") the numbers above translate to $11.80 spent in LA versus $1.90 in Boston.
José Mateo, Founder and Artistic Director of the José Mateo Ballet Theatre, offered the most practical and forward-thinking contribution of the night. Soberly, he grounded everyone by painting a picture of the Boston arts community following Mayor Menino's election: it was hopeful. In the 1980s, Boston arts councils and organizations, like prominent ones around the nation, came under fire, had suffered severe cutbacks, and were struggling for legitimacy. With a new Mayor seated things could surely improve. Mateo's words rang to me like a warning: in this race, don't mistake lip-service for a willingness to act.
What he said next was what really got my attention. "Are we simply looking for increased resources? What if instead of just raising the arts on the list [of mayoral priorities], they were integrated into each priority on the mayoral agenda?" Mateo envisions partnerships between arts and other municipal agencies on a wide variety of issues, such as housing, education, street crime, community development. "Let's reflect on how we might move arts away from a secondary position and give them the more purposeful role we know them to deserve." At this point, I turned around to see how the mayoral candidates were reacting to this proposition. They were nowhere to be seen.
It's obvious why many of the people present were described by peers and colleagues as hell-raisers. It's going to take a vocal crowd to carry forward a compelling and truly contemporary arts agenda and get it to the candidates in this race. This is without a doubt the opportunity of decades. Let's try not to miss it.