Annissa Essaibi-George's Response to the Arts & Culture Questionnaire

Your Personal Connection 
We’ve all had defining moments in our lives. What personal connections with the arts and creative expression have had an impact on your life and your view of the community? 

I have always enjoyed robust artistic expression from childhood through adulthood. Even now as a Boston City Councilor and mom of four boys, choosing colors and a project to knit or sitting down at my sewing machine lets me express myself beyond anything words can express and brings me the peace of mind to be creative in all of my endeavors. During the most challenging days of work and life, I find great comfort in my craft. And joke “if you find me at the sewing machine, let me be!”

As a teacher, I saw that for many kids it was arts that anchored them in the school community, arts that helped them work out personal issues, and arts that were a precious source of pride, especially for kids who struggled with academics. I’m still a teacher at heart and these experiences continue motivate my support for arts and culture in Boston to this day.

As a business owner, I know the economic engine and asset the creative arts have in the community in which my business exists and the community at-large for which it serves. I own and operate the Stitch House, a yarn shop located on Dorchester Avenue. In my ten years of business I have had the great pleasure of introducing hand crafts to thousands of individuals.

City Investment in the Arts 
Boston Create​s lays out an ambitious program to build a strong arts and creative culture. Financial investments from the city are necessary for the plan to meet its goals. While the Office of Arts and Culture has grown since 2013, Boston invests significantly les​s per capita government support than the other comparable cities, leaving many small to medium sized cultural institutions vulnerable. For example, Boston supports the arts at just over $2/person while Chicago spends $7/person and New York contributes $15. What dedicated funding stream will you establish to provide funds for the priorities outlined in Boston Creates and the sector overall? At what financial level will the city invest in the Boston arts and creative sector? 

To understand Boston’s unique investments in the arts means looking beyond dollars in the budget. Music schools from Berklee to New England Conservatory that offer free concerts represent Boston’s investment in the arts by virtue of the schools’ tax-free status. Shows at Mass College of Art & Design, which has a free 4-year program that prepares 9th - 12th grade students, and BU School of Fine Arts are likewise part of Boston’s investment in the arts. Our City is unique in its number of colleges per capita and our budget can’t be compared to other cities without taking this into account.

Still, the challenges to support the kind of city-wide arts and culture engagement that Boston Creates envisions are real. The presence of so many large colleges, cultural institutions and hospitals limits the City’s tax base and ability to fund direct dollars to the arts at high levels. As a City Councilor, I support arts dollars going to smaller, newer organizations, as well as to school-based programs. In particular, I support the significant investment we’re making with the State’s support for the Boston Arts Academy. As the only truly “arts” school in the district, we need to ensure it has the finest facilities and allows our children to have a full, expansive experience in an arts education. We also need to continue pushing all our schools to increase their arts programing across all schools and all grades I work to help raise awareness of their activities through social media knowing that awareness if the first step to donor support and building a foundation of long term giving, partnership and City support is critical for strong and stable arts in our City. It is also important to work with our local institutions to find ways to collaborate to support the arts in the City, to create live and/or work spaces, to strengthen employment opportunities for their students. There are opportunities to explore the role of PILOT payments in this work too. And as a City Councilor, I will use this as a method to explore ways to create this opportunity.

Youth Engagement 
Engaging students with the arts in school and out of school is essential to educating the whole child. While the BPS Arts Expansion Initiative has achieved great success with 94 percent of children from Pre-K up to 8th grade receiving weekly art programs, high school student participation in arts education lags far behind. Boston’s nationally honored Creative Youth Development (youth arts) organizations continue to service thousands of kids, yet struggle to raise the money needed to reach 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 Boston have a connection to the arts and tap into their creativity? 

Having seen the profound positive affects arts can have on children and teens, I wholeheartedly support arts engagement through high school. I will work to strengthen arts requirements in BPS so that all graduates have access to a great arts education. I would establish meaningful partnerships with colleges and universities to share and teach a variety of arts in schools. I will establish low-cost housing programs for artists in residence who in return will be involved in bringing their arts to the schools so our children can be exposed to a broad variety of visual and performance arts.

 I support the significant investment we’re making with the State’s support for the Boston Arts Academy. As the only truly “arts” school in the district, we need to ensure it has the finest facilities and allows our children to have a full, expansive experience in an arts education. We also need to continue pushing all our schools to increase their arts programing across all schools and all grades.

Creating and Maintaining Vibrant Neighborhoods 
The Boston Creates Plan makes a powerful call for increased accessibility and diversity in the arts. With significant development planned in neighborhoods across the city over the decade, making and keeping vibrant neighborhoods for longstanding residents needs to be a priority. How would you use the arts and culture community to build connections that maintain and support the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity that makes the city thrive? 

As a City Councilor-At-Large I spend a full day each month in one of Boston’s neighborhood communities, so I am very appreciative of our rich diversity. I see that people’s connections to arts and culture organizations, and also small businesses, libraries, community centers and parks help define the identity of many neighborhoods. I believe that facilitating relationships among these groups can only serve to strengthen each of them culturally and financially. I would include age diversity to this mix both as a source of cultural wisdom and creativity and as a potential space-sharing possibility.

Supporting Working Artists
In the past year, Boston has provided funding and support for individual artists through a series of new grant programs. Despite this investment, many artists cannot support themselves in Boston due to the high cost of living. What will you do to provide more affordable housing and work spaces for artists? 

The high cost of living may be Boston’s biggest challenge. It affects entrepreneurs’ ability to start small business as well as artists’ ability to live here. Yet, the City cannot afford to lose either. I will work to stem the tide of luxury apartments and condominiums and encourage developers to do more than set aside a small percent of condos for low-income residents. I will also work to get colleges and universities to house their students on their own campuses, which would free up thousands of units.

Creating Space to Rehearse, Perform and Operate 
Artists and cultural institutions struggle to find space to rehearse, perform, and run their administrative operations. The Boston Performing Arts Facility Assessment demonstrates that the current supply of space does not meet the demand of the arts community. What steps will you take to address this problem? 

The City must make venues available for arts performance, including city-owned properties. I will propose building a database of performance venues, especially in colleges, and ask that colleges make those spaces available for organizations that lack or can’t afford space on a low-cost basis. We also need to encourage more opportunities when we have new developments in our City.

Best Utilizing the Chief of Arts and Culture
 In the fall of 2014, Julie Burros became Boston’s first Chief of Arts and Culture in over twenty years, and she presently works within the Mayor's cabinet. How will you work with additional city departments to leverage this cultural cabinet seat to utilize Boston’s arts and cultural sector as an asset to address the various economic and social issues of the city? 

As Chair of the Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health & Recovery and Vice Chair of the Committee on Education, I see many opportunities for this cabinet post. I have worked hard to remove the stigma from families experiencing homelessness and individuals suffering from addiction. Sharing arts experiences would do this so effectively. I also see potential for connections, like we have with the AIR program, with departments who are responsible for our parks & recreation centers, addiction treatment and mental health centers, Boston Police Department, Boston Public Schools and many underserved communities.

Promoting Arts and Culture in Boston
Boston is known for its educational and medical institutions as well as its championship sports teams. Yet, more than 80 percent of tourist express that their primary reason for visiting the city is to attend arts and cultural events. What will you do to encourage more locals and tourists to see Boston as an international destination for the arts? 

Too often Boston residents who support our fine arts and cultural institutions with tax dollars can’t afford to actually go to concerts or plays. Institutions should offer performances for school children and make free tickets available to encourage broad participation in this rewarding resource. I use social media to promote local arts happenings and organizations and encourage the organizations to email me with announcements so I can help promote them. I am devoted to wellbeing of our City and its residents and that includes boosting our reputation as an arts City.

Your “Go To” Places
Boston is blessed with a rich mix of arts and cultural organizations. Please name two places where you have had personally significant connections to the arts and/or cultural experiences.

For me there is nothing more special than what we make by hand. That’s the logo for my business and the experience I like to share with any new crafter. I made my own prom dress, wedding gown and all the bridesmaid and flower girl dresses. I’ve also made countless quilts and hand-crafted gifts for friends and family. That’s why I opened the Stitch House, a Dorchester brick and mortar store where we sell yarn of every fiber, arts & crafts and sewing materials, teach classes, host parties and create our own arts community. I appreciate the value of creative expression as a vital part of Boston’s economy and the Stitch House is where I exercise both of those expressions.

The organization that has been a cultural home to me is the Polish American Citizens Club of Boston. As the daughter of immigrants – my father was born in Tunisia and my Polish mother in a displaced persons camp in Germany – learning the melodies of the Poland, hearing its authors and poets speak, seeing its artwork and learning its history has helped me appreciate the importance of each of our cultural histories and the value of learning those histories. As a child I participated in a Polish Folk Dancing troupe – Cracovia. As a City Councilor I have hosted flag raisings on Polish Independence Day and shared the national heritage and food(!) with Council staff and guests. Being immersed in this part of my culture has added a richness and depth to my life that I wish for everyone.

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