The numbers don’t lie: When it comes to arts funding Boston lags behind

At the risk of landing on the wrong side of the legendary Boston vs. New York rivalry, we’re going to give it to you straight: Boston is no New York City.

Still reading? It’s true―at least when it comes to arts funding from local government, philanthropic foundations, and corporations. In these areas, New York well outpaces Boston in terms of per capita dollars received, according to “How Boston and Other American Cities Support and Sustain the Arts,” a new report from The Boston Foundation.

The numbers don’t lie, and they’re a little embarrassing. According to the report, Boston arts and cultural organizations receive a meager four dollars in government funding per city resident to New York’s $18. Adding insult to injury, the majority of Boston’s government arts funding comes from federal, rather than state or city, coffers. In other words, municipal and state governments simply aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to supporting Boston’s arts and cultural institutions. Even more damning than lagging behind just New York City, Boston ranked dead last among all 11 of the major cities analyzed in the report in terms of government contributions to the arts.

In 2012, philanthropic foundation giving in Boston amounted to $12 per capita (excluding an outlying one-time anonymous contribution that artificially drove the total to $28 per capita), while in New York those dollars amounted to $18 per capita. Meanwhile, at a scant $3 per capita, corporate giving to Boston arts and cultural organizations is half of New York’s $6 per capita.

These numbers are more troubling than embarrassing when considering the recent massive investments by the municipal, corporate, and philanthropic sectors in boosting Boston’s economy, its national profile, and even its skyline. To cite a few examples: Boston is in the midst of what city leaders assert is the largest building boom in the city’s history, which is revitalizing and transforming neighborhoods like Fenway and Downtown Crossing. City and state leaders recently convinced General Electric to relocate its headquarters from Connecticut to the South Boston waterfront, offering $145 million in incentives―including up to $25 million in property tax breaks from the city. And when Boston emerged as a contender to host the 2024 Olympics last year, millions poured in from titans of Boston’s philanthropic and business communities to support the effort.

Meanwhile, the local arts community has been rocked by Emerson College’s potential closing of the storied Colonial Theatre, Citigroup Inc.’s withdrawal as the sponsor of the Citi Performing Arts Center and Boston University’s decision to sell the BU Theatre. And the future of smaller cultural enterprises, such as the popular Seaport District park known as Lawn on D, which draws throngs of young Bostonians with giant art installations, concerts, and film screenings, is in doubt due to funding issues.

For both the Colonial and BU Theatre, the high costs of upgrades and long-deferred maintenance may have factored into the decisions of their parent organizations to shutter the venues. Yet Boston provides no support for its arts facilities, as the Boston Foundation points out―despite the city’s high real estate and rental prices. “Meanwhile,” the report notes, “New York and San Francisco dedicate tens of millions every year toward targeted facilities support.”

It’s difficult to comprehend the institutional neglect of the city’s arts and cultural institutions when investing in Boston’s arts and culture scene is not a risky proposition, as the Boston Foundation report makes clear. Boston’s abundance of arts and cultural organizations―more than 1,500―make it one of the most culturally rich cities in America, second only to San Francisco in the number of arts and cultural organizations per capita. (Take that, New York.) Those organizations in 2012 earned $350 million-plus from ticket sales and other participation-based sources, putting Boston in third place behind New York City and San Francisco in per capita earned revenue. And make no mistake, audiences aren’t the only ones benefitting from the city’s stellar array of arts and cultural productions. As the report points out, “Because of this depth and breadth and depth, Boston’s cultural sector had a significant impact on the state’s economy.”

Given what Boston’s arts and cultural community has done on a relative shoestring budget, imagine the possibilities if per capita state and city funding, philanthropic giving, and corporate underwriting in Boston matched that of New York City or San Francisco. 

As the city continues Boston Creates, the cultural planning process it began last year, Mayor Marty Walsh is taking steps to provide that support. In his State of the City address last month, Walsh pledged $1 million to give direct grants to artists, fund the creation of an information clearinghouse for artists, and expand the city’s artist-in-residence program. Even with this increase, Boston’s contributions to the arts, as compared with cities like New York, barely registers. We clearly need more from the city of Boston.

Meanwhile, Walsh’s pledge will, ideally, send a signal to business and philanthropic leaders that investing in the arts is a worthy endeavor―and not just for the economic benefits, but also for the vital role of arts and culture in building vibrant and connected communities. As the Boston Globe recently observed in a great editorial calling for more state and city leadership on arts funding, “Public leadership inspires the confidence of private corporate and foundation funders.”

That is exactly what we need if Boston’s arts and cultural sector is to reach its full potential.

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