Photo by Richard Howard, Courtesy of the Boston Foundation

The Boston Foundation arts funding report fuels need for advocacy

Massachusetts’ arts, cultural, and creative sector is integral to the health and vitality of the Massachusetts economy, the quality of life in its communities, and the future of its young people. Artists, nonprofit cultural organizations, and a diverse, creative workforce represent an under-tapped energy source to help the Commonwealth address and resolve its most challenging problems.

Yet, the way Boston, the major cultural center in the Commonwealth, funds the arts does not reflect the impact the sector has on its communities. On a financial level, Boston has not embraced the arts as a “public good” worthy of adequate public investment.

In a report released by The Boston Foundation on January 19th, How Boston and Other American Cities Support and Sustain the Arts, compares how Boston matches up in its support for the arts and culture community with ten other major American cities. The results are telling. Whereas, Boston ranks near the top in earned revenue, individual ticket sales, and individual giving, it ranks dead last in governmental, foundation and corporate support. Following the report’s release, The Boston Globe published an editorial calling on state and city to be leaders on arts funding.

The report confirmed what many have long known about Boston and the Commonwealth’s relationship with the arts and cultural sector. Massachusetts residents generously look at the arts as a vital source of entertainment to personally support by attending and making contributions. Yet, Boston and Massachusetts, as communities, still do not embrace arts and culture as a public good that deserves to be supported collectively through government, corporate, or philanthropic support. The arts community continues to be characterized as something that is “nice” but not “necessary” by political and philanthropic leadership.

Because of its overreliance on individual giving, Massachusetts’ arts ecosystem is financially imbalanced. Funding for the top institutions in Boston is impressive (comparable to San Francisco at the top of the list) with the top three institutions bringing in more than $75 million of revenue for their operations. Yet this leaves Boston’s medium and small institutions vulnerable and scrambling for support (Boston is tied at the bottom of the list with Baltimore in this area). This reliance on individual giving directs more money to the popular established groups and leaves less for non-traditional and smaller groups who may be working more on social justice and multicultural issues. This funding norm also limits the experimental and risk taking by the sector as lower ticket sales may have a significant say in the future fiscal viability of the organization. Bottom line, Boston institutions produce less original works and often temper their political messages.

While residents as individuals support the arts, Massachusetts political leadership does not embrace arts and culture as a ‘public good’ and investment by government, foundations and corporations is minimal. While programs abound to address the socioeconomic ills of the Commonwealth, the arts sector does not earn the public support and resources it needs to build a more vibrant, healthy, and equitable Commonwealth.

The time is now for the arts and cultural scene to make the shift from a sector primarily supported by individual residents for entertainment, to a sector that is seen as a public good that is supported by community through increased government and foundation support. MASSCreative public education, advocacy, and organizing work will drive that change by building and mobilizing a grassroots network for change.


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