Arts community expresses itself at Boston hearing

The ideas and requests expressed by the arts community at the Jan. 25 public hearing before Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s Arts and Culture Transition Committee were as diverse as the cultural community itself: open a public library in Chinatown; shut down Boylston Street and hold a Duck Boat parade for Tony Award winners; foster collaboration among all artists with jazz musicians; include artists with disabilities in the planning process; preserve industrial space for artists; support small theater companies; begin planning for the 250th birthday of the founding of the nation; and treat artists as entrepreneurs.

But several clear themes emerged from the testimony, which took place over two-and-a-half hours in the Robb Auditorium at the Boston Public Library: a call for public funding of the arts; increased access to arts education for all students in Boston; streamlining the permitting and licensing process; a show of support for the arts from Boston City Hall via attendance at art events and exhibiting work at City Hall and in other public spaces; and creation of a cultural plan for the city that is coordinated with all city initiatives.

Speaker after speaker made the case for public investment in the arts. When Fort Point artist and inventor Steve Hollinger stated, “We need an arts budget” and referred to the public support of arts and culture by cities like San Francisco, the audience erupted in applause.

The Arts and Culture Transition Committee ran several polls during the hearing by which audience members could vote by texting their answers. In response to a question about what would be the most important first action regarding the arts that Mayor Walsh could take, the clear winner was “create a dedicated funding stream” for the arts.

Numerous speakers also made the case for arts education in grades K-12. Some of them tied it to increased academic performance across all disciplines, but others talked about the increased quality of life art can offer students. One student from Roxbury testified: “I’ve had low confidence and self-esteem. School arts programs impacted me tremendously and changed me.”

Michael Dowling of the Medicine Wheel in South Boston said that one of the young people involved with his project, which uses art to help those dealing with addiction, asked him to pass along the following message: “Young people destroy things because they are not invited to create.”

Don Carlson of Jazz Boston made the case for reforming the licensing and permitting process by reading a hearing notice from the most recent issue of the Boston Courant in which a club already licensed to provide live entertainment needed to apply for a disc jockey license. To much laughter and applause, Carlson asked rhetorically, “What is the city afraid of?”

Visual artist Nate Swain testified convincingly for the need for more public art. By putting art on so many of the city’s blank spaces, you can create an atmosphere under which you are amazed “every time you turn a corner,” he said.

Eve Bridburg of Grub Street noted how much the city already accomplished through art and asked the Committee to imagine what could be accomplished with a dedicated arts plan that was coordinated with other city functions.

Some of the testimony was given via live performances by a Boston schools student who attends Zumix, a graduate of The Theater Offensive’s True Colors; and a violinist from the New England Conservatory.

As longtime arts critic Joyce Kulhawik noted in her testimony, “This is some of the best theater I’ve ever seen.”

Jason Turgeon encouraged the Committee to think big: We don’t just want to be a leader in the arts, he said, we want Boston to be the leader in the arts. He added, “Boston artists don’t want to move to New York. They want to stay in Boston. That’s why they move to Somerville and Cambridge.”

If interest in the hearing is any indication, it would seem that there is energy to implement Turgeon’s vision. Audience-goers filled the Robb Auditorium as well as an adjacent room with spillover seating where attendees watched the proceedings via remote video. During the last part of the hearing, the hashtag for the event—#bosarts—began trending nationally on Twitter.

Fittingly, Kulhawik offered up a new motto for the work to come: “Boston’s Got It! Come Here!”

Over the next several weeks, the Walsh Administration will be working on its budget and finding the person who will lead its work on the arts and lead Boston’s new Office of Arts and Culture. We look forward to working with the Adminstration and the Arts and Culture Transition Committee on all of this!

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commented 2014-01-27 16:09:45 -0500 · Flag
Great wrap-up! (Not to whine, but sorta wish the Globe hadn’t decided it needed to do laundry Saturday morning…) Thanks.

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