Stephanie Hirsch'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.

Programming for youth: A major area of focus for me and my campaign has been on trying to close the achievement gap in Somerville and to create more equity in access to programming for kids and families. One of my favorite programs that helps accomplish this goal is Art in the Garden. My kids have participated in this program for many years, as have their classmates of many different backgrounds and family means. I love what it does: provides engaging programing for kids at different income levels, integrates artists with community programming helping kids experience the world around them in a new way, and uses an existing, beautiful civic space in a special way. There’s so much to love about this combination. Another effort that supports a similar mix of goals is the Argenziano’s Heritage Night. Each year, it brings together so many families to share their food, music, art, dance, and language. Some activities related to the night are funded by Arts Council grants. There are many school activities that do not attract a high level of participation, but this one has almost universal participation, and I believe it’s because it celebrates the culture of each family. Similar, though in a different way, the annual Holiday Lights tour strikes me as such a cool bridge-building event that brings people of the different sub-groups in Somerville together to appreciate and celebrate residents’ careful work of home decoration. We need so much more of that kind of bridge-building, and appreciation of artistic work across different backgrounds seems like a pretty amazing kind of way to increase empathy. The recent series at Aeronaut highlighting history and art topics, and inviting learning and discussion across different subgroups, run by Union Playlist, has also been really neat.

Open Studios: I love Open Studios, and I and my family participate every year. There’s something magical and brave about people opening their homes and sharing their life work. Each is so different. I love what this represents – opening the home, people sharing what they care about, and others listening – and then purchasing art work to support the artists. It’s a huge organizational undertaking to run Open Studios, and I’m grateful for that work. Similar to the above examples, I love it that Open Studios is a way to support art while also building empathy, understanding, and community.

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?

Somerville spends very little on culture and recreation. See right for a table of the 2016 spending per capita on the budget category. In general, Somerville continues to have among the lowest levels of revenue per capita among communities in the Commonwealth, even at the same time that housing values are so high. Right now, we see a mismatch of so-called luxury homes and city infrastructure that’s much more like that of the poorer industrial communities.

Programs like our Arts Council, our libraries, historic preservation, and recreation all really suffer. In fact, it’s amazing what these departments and groups do accomplish given how little they receive in funding. I believe this needs to change. These departments are critical to the heart and soul of the city. Shared community organizations help level the playing field, as they give people of different backgrounds and incomes the ability to participate in activities together. They also create civic space where people can meet and form friendships. They are at the heart of business development, both for smaller and more vulnerable businesses like immigrant-owned or small retailers and artists, and as related to higher revenue businesses such as might be launched out of a place like Artisans’ Asylum. Artists contribute so much to our community and we need you here. I think it requires a community discussion about priorities, and where we may be willing to spend less or raise more money. This is a conversation we must have before our character changes beyond recognition, and facilitating that process is one of my top four goals.

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?

I support breaking ground on the first proposed building of the ArtFarm. Despite a great deal of celebration of the role artists have played in defining Somerville’s unique character, the City has made little or no investment in infrastructure that demonstrates a commitment to this group. That is a huge and justified point of frustration for artists and others who have invested so much in this project.

In general and in all aspects of my work with the community, if elected, I believe in looking for ways that we can build connections across sub-groups, initiatives, and departments. I love that the ArtFarm has this as a goal. The more we can demonstrate those connections – such as the possible impact on youth programming, senior programming, and business development – the better. Also, I believe we can continue to work closely with the Brickbottom residents so that the project figures into open space and civic space plans for the Brickbottom district. I also believe we should look at how it relates to the Washington corridor, from Union to Sullivan.

In my hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the community has put at the center of its community development efforts the arts (both visual and performance) and music. Because of this focus, they have been able to build a huge performance and art center in the heart of the community, in combination with the local university and business community. Many residents have themselves donated to support the effort, in combination with the city. See: If a place like Eau Claire can tackle this, surely Somerville, as one of the most progressive cities in the country – and with a growing wealth – should be able to do the same or more! I personally am always amazed at the mismatch between the “people” assets in the creative world in Somerville and our “bricks and mortar” assets. The former is extraordinary and the latter is almost completely absent. If elected, I promise to help move this forward through strategizing, monitoring, attending meetings, and problem solving in whatever ways get us closer to groundbreaking.

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?

As mentioned in my first answer, my life-long commitment is to improve government service delivery and to strengthen community connections so as to help all people, with special attention to those who are most dependent on city services. I think it’s really important in both service delivery and place-making to make it easy and inviting for people to participate. That sometimes means changing the focus of an effort, even sometimes resulting in some people moving a bit out of a comfort zone. For example, a program for kids might look different if we started by asking low-income immigrant parents – what type of program would you like for your kids? It may no longer be as appealing to some upper income families, but it will work better for low-income families. SOMETIMES, best case scenario, there are things that work really well for everyone. The Heritage Night is one that stands out to me. The Nibble classes in Union are awesome. I have been impressed how the Fluff Fest has attracted more different types of people each year. I like it that it’s a big fundraising source for local PTAs, as then it draws in a different crowd.

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?

I don’t know much about this, but would love to learn. One idea I submitted as a CPA proposal, which got initial approval but hasn’t moved forward yet, is the idea of inventorying “remnant” city spaces – that is small spaces that are currently not being used. You can find more information here:  That might be a way to create more small pocket parks that double as embedded art. For example, there’s a triangle of land between Washington Street and the railroad tracks that’s City owned, but not calculated as part of its open space. It’s not used in any way now, but would be a wonderful spot to picnic and watch the trains go by. That would be so neat if art were part of it! In general, in all of our squares and transformative districts, I’m going to push hard for civic space, and that includes performance and art space.


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?

Please see my affordability position here: I believe that the Right of First Refusal program, combined with a source of subsidy, could be a powerful tool for artists. Its main focus is on empowering tenant associations or cooperative buyers (including limited equity buyers, who would purchase a building with subsidy). This means that a group of tenants or buyers could make decisions about the design of their space so that it met needs of live, work, performance, and retail. It could preserve older housing stock and formerly industrial spaces for new uses. I will push for this initiative, and many others. 

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?

As mentioned above, expanding programming for children, especially those who are most often excluded from existing programs, is one of my top priorities. I believe that there are missed opportunities. We have an extraordinary diversity, but we could do more to help children learn about one another’s culture and language from very early on in the schools. Also, we have one of the country’s largest populations of young adults, and we could do more to get them in the schools. I’d love to see more supports for our non-profits, like Mudflats or SCATV, so that they are able to have access to space (such as through a capital fund for non-profits) and so that they can serve low-income students. I think that there should be much more coordination across the school district, city, and non-profit providers. I’m also interested in ideas like a “badging” program, that helps piece together different separate providers to make it more accessible to kids to participate in those programs, such as by helping with transportation, subsidy, sign-up, income verification, and linkages of lessons learned in programming to curriculum standards. I’d love to convene artists and providers together to see what can be done, set specific goals, and then push them forward.

In general, I’m someone who is relentless and dogged about getting things done. I will make a list of goals – including all the ones mentioned here. If elected will start chipping away at them with meetings, task-forces, analysis of data, petitions -- whatever it takes. I promise to report out monthly on all of the goals I have set. I would LOVE to learn more from all of you and to add your goals to my list. Thank you for asking these questions and I hope I can earn your vote. Please learn more here:

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