Joe Curtatone's Response to the Arts & Culture Questionnaire

Your​ ​Personal​ ​Connection
Somerville is fortunate to have a rich cultural community. Please tell us about two instances in which you have had personally significant experiences with the arts and/or culture in Somerville.

When I became Mayor in 2004 Somerville, we had a rich tradition of civic events, but not of street festivals which give our local artists more of an opportunity to shine. During my time in office Somerville launched the events that our city is now famous for: Fluff Fest in 2005, HONK! In 2006, SomerStreets in 2009, and PorchFest in 2011. My administration had a hand in launching these events, and working with the communities of artists, musicians, activists, and business owners who did the hard work of conceiving and organizing these events.

I’m particularly proud of HONK! because it is a festival that has been copied by other cities in the US -- Austin and Detroit -- and abroad in Australia and Brazil.

We’ve also made the arts central to our city square revitalization efforts and built it into our new zoning proposal. We helped the Artisan’s Asylum find a permanent home inside the old Ames Business Park. We’ve been involved with making performance space projects a reality, like the Center for Arts at the Armory and the Somerville Theatre renovation. In Brickbottom we’re converting our old incinerator site into the Somerville ARTFarm, with creative spaces and a public commons. Beyond that, we’ve envisioned a city full of new artist/maker spaces in our new zoning with a Fabrication District overlay that reaches into every section of Somerville.

City​ ​Investment​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Arts
How would you ensure government continues to support the creative community? As an elected official how would you ensure the Somerville cultural community receives the funding it needs to be a driving force in the city and region? At what financial level should the city invest in the creative sector? Do you support incremental increases, and if so, at what percent? How might this relate to the Arts Council and staffing? Do you believe that investment in infrastructure for the arts in Somerville will prove valuable in sustaining and growing our creative ecosystem and cultural economy?

In Somerville the Arts Council is an integral part of supporting the creative community. All of the streets festivals in our city are organized through the Arts Council, and the Arts Council is also lead on public art and city cultural positions like Somerville’s first poet laureate.

I’ve always fought for SAC funding, and supporting the marquee festivals that our city holds is key to that. In Somerville, our arts and culture provide clear demonstrable benefits to our wider economy -- bringing folks into our city’s shops and restaurants, and attracting businesses who think they and their employees benefit from our community’s cultural reputation.

During the past decade we’ve increased our Arts Council budget 403%. We now spend more than half a million dollars a year on it. Somerville is off the charts in terms of its municipal support for the arts. We believe we set a standard not just in this region, but nationally.

Cultural​ ​Infrastructure​ ​and​ ​ArtFarm
Three years ago, Somerville started the planning process to redevelop the former waste transfer site into a site that would support the physical infrastructure needs of both the arts and urban agricultural community. Do you, as a candidate, support this effort? At this site? And if so, what can you do to ensure it becomes a reality? Considering that the City views itself innovative, which aspects of ArtFarm do you find innovative​ ​in a way that would​ ​reinforce the culturally progressive nature of our changing City? ArtFarm has received 1.4 million in outside investment — do you support further City investment to make Artfarm a permanent cultural resource for Somerville? In addition to ArtFarm, what are other strategies and means can you imagine that would further develop and support the cultural infrastructure of the City?

As Somerville continues to see more and more investment, it is important that we maintain and promote the artist community that was so much a part of making our city a destination to begin with. That requires more than good intentions -- it means real investment in city policies and resources. That is why I’ve been so strongly committed to seeing ArtFarm at its existing site.

As Mayor, I strongly support this effort at that site. I was part of starting that planning process, and I have remained closely involved in that process since then. ArtFarm is located in Brickbottom, an area undergoing an enormous transformation as the Green Line is finally built and development at Union Square continues. I’ve worked closely with folks at SAC, Ward 2 Alderman Maryann Heuston, and the artist community in Somerville to navigate this project through those changes, so that ArtFarm becomes a reality.

Beyond ArtFarm, the comprehensive zoning reform that my administration is working to pass envisions scores of new artist/maker spaces, along with 78 specific parcels that can sustain 3,000 creative economy jobs. Artist and Maker space is part of the zoning reform because explicitly including Somerville’s arts and culture in our community’s planning and development decisions is the only way to make sure that we maintain what makes our city special.

Supporting​ ​a​ ​Diverse​ ​and​ ​Inclusive​ ​City
Somerville is a diverse and thriving community. How would you support creative community to build connections that maintain and support the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity that makes this City thrive? How would you ensure that immigrants play pivotal roles in shaping our cultural infrastructure? Do you see immigrants getting priced out of Somerville as a problem — and what are your ideas to retain our immigrant communities, and thus sustain our diverse culture?

I was born and raised in Somerville because it is a city of immigrants -- my parents came to this city from Gaeta, Italy, like a lot of the Italian folks who live in our city. We continue to be an immigrant city, with large numbers of Portugese, Salvardoran, and Haitian immigrants all coming to our city and calling it home. As Mayor, I’ve honored that legacy as an immigrant city by supporting and protecting Somerville’s status as a Sanctuary City.

I’ve also honored that legacy by working with institutions of our immigrant communities to keep people in our city. We work closely with churches and faith leaders in Somerville to make sure folks know they are a vital and valued part of our community. Somerville’s Welcome Project is a unique public agency, organizing and making the voices of our city’s immigrant community heard in City Hall.

Our region is in a housing crisis, and in Somerville we’re taking steps to build more, and more affordable, units. We’ve built more affordable units in the past 6 years -- 225 -- than in any other period in our city’s history, and we have 330 more units in the pipeline. Our city passed the 20% affordable housing ordinance, so that large developers contribute to maintaining our city’s diversity. We have the highest owner-occupied tax exemption in Massachusetts, so that seniors and families can afford to stay in their homes.

I’m proposing new, bold solutions. A 1% transfer fee on real estate speculation, carefully written with exemptions for lower-income households, long-term owners, and owners who sell at a loss- would enable Somerville to compete in the market. I testified in support of Rep. Provost’s right-to-buy legislation that would give tenants the opportunity to purchase their units.

There isn’t a silver bullet to solving affordability in our city, but I’m taking an all-of-the-above approach to make sure Somerville remains the diverse, inclusive community we love.

Public​ ​Art​ ​and​ ​Creative​ ​Placemaking
Somerville does a wonderful job of supporting art and artists in public spaces through it’s many festivals and civic events; how will you ensure this continues and reflects the diverse community? How would you expand upon the “temporary” events and create more permanent works embedded in the Somerville landscape? Would this look like a traditional percent-for-permanent-art program, tied to development, similar to Cambridge? How could you leverage the expansive private development occurring in the City to invest in sustaining arts and culture?

We’ve been very successful during the past 14 years in fostering diverse owner-occupied businesses in our city squares - restaurants, salons, jewelers, etc. Inside the city we have venues like the Center for Arts at the Armory and Samba Bar presenting multi-cultural music and dance. We’ve added events like the Ignite! Festival, which highlights Brazilian and Latino culture. All around our city we have tapped in the strength of our diversity.

The next step is to build on that, making sure diversity is as much a part of our future growth as it has been over the past decade. ARTFarm and the Powder House School conversion project will create new permanent artist spaces. Also, as our city squares continue their transformation, the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund gives us an excellent tool to help artists from our immigrant communities put more of an indelible stamp on where they live. What we’ve discovered is it is crucial for us to help those who have traditionally been outsiders to navigate their way through the system. That’s a big part of how projects like the Mudflat Pottery studios in East Somerville come together. We provide staff support to members of the community to help make their visions a reality.

We also have a potential community partner in Lesley University, which has built a new art college facility just over the Cambridge border in Porter Square. That area of our city is undergoing an evolution. The Beacon Street renovation project will unlock numerous opportunities for us to build out the Somerville section of the square and we can engage with Lesley on the role the arts can play in the future of Porter Square.

Space​ ​to​ ​Rehearse,​ ​Create​ ​and​ ​Live
The lack of affordable studio space and housing makes it hard for artists—not to mention working class families and immigrants— to stay in Somerville. How would you keep artists of all backgrounds in the city and provide the infrastructure necessary for them to thrive? What specifically can the City accomplish and how can it leverage private development to provide more live and work spaces for artists? Do you support current initiatives including work/live housing for artists and fabrication zoning to retain creative spaces?

As I wrote before, the comprehensive zoning reform that my administration is working to pass envisions scores of new artist/maker spaces, along with 78 specific parcels that can sustain 3,000 creative economy jobs. That is in zoning reform because my administration is working to create more live and work spaces for artists. Somerville’s success demonstrates that the whole community in Somerville is well-served by an administration that is focused on support the arts and culture from both a policy perspective, and invested in keeping a vibrant and thriving artist community in our city.

Youth​ ​Engagement
Engaging students with the arts in school and out of school is essential to educating the whole child. While the Somerville school curricula provides access to many, we need more participation in arts education. Somerville’s out of school youth arts organizations continue to service thousands of kids, yet struggle to raise the resources needed to meet student demand. How would you invest in arts education for students of all ages, both inside and outside of school to ensure all youth in Somerville have a connection to the arts?

Under my administration, funding for Somerville Public Schools has increased 47%, and the percentage of Somerville students moving on to higher and further education has increased from 59% to 80%.

As part of that, we have stressed arts education. Students pay no fees for music instruction, which is almost unheard of in this region. We recently added a fabrication space, called Fabville, to our high school to encourage and train the next generation of makers in our community. We fully support STEAM education (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) because we view the arts as not just as enrichment for our students, but as a viable array of professions for when their schooling is complete. One of the core principles inside our schools is we seek to encourage creativity, allowing students to find their voice in multiple artistic mediums.


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