Bob McWatters' 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.

Every year I look forward to Somerville Open Studios and seeing what my neighbors have created. It is always an opportunity to see some great art and connect with my neighbors. There are artists who I regularly visit each year, and I’m also able to visit those who may be new to Somerville and exhibiting for the first time. Open Studios represents the best of our city and the power of the arts to bring people together and strengthen community.

Soon after being elected, I attended a symposium on development and the arts which was organized by Union Square Neighbors and Union Square Main Streets. The event was titled “The space in-between – art, green space and the public realm,” and the organizers invited a range of artists, designers, and architects to share creative projects they had done in order to inspire creative thinking about the future of Union Square. It opened up a whole new world of possibilities that I had not thought of before. It further convinced me of the power of art and design to improve lives, a conviction which informs how I approach policy decisions.

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?

I’ve always said that while Somerville is a data driven city, you can’t measure the enormous contributions and intangible benefits that artists, musicians, and the entire creative community make to our city. The work that the Somerville Arts Council has done through ArtsUnion in Union Square has been incredible, and I’ve heard from many constituents about how much the festivals and events have come to define what living in Somerville means to them.

City government can support the arts in two ways: through funding and through policy. I support continued funding for the Somerville Arts Council including incremental increases tied to the overall growth in municipal revenue. That’s why I have spent the last four years pushing for the policies that will lead to long term growth in municipal revenues, which will allow us to increase our investment in the creative community. One way we will grow revenue is by attracting commercial development, which pays a much higher tax rate than residential properties, while requiring less demands on city services. A vibrant creative ecosystem in Somerville is key to attracting innovative, creative companies and helps foster the municipal revenues we need to increase funding for the arts.

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?

ArtFarm is one of the most exciting things taking place in our city and it is something I fully support. It will provide an important new public space and civic hub in a location that lacks access to open space, and provide much-needed permanent space for performances and exhibitions. Our city must be committed to making this happen.

What I find most exciting about ArtFarm is how it can become a place to engage the public in many ways attracting many different types of people. I see it as a place that could attract young people, families, long-time residents and everyone in between, bringing people together. The plans allow for different uses and flexibility over time, which will ensure it can evolve to meet the needs and desires of the community.

The first thing that needs to be done to make ArtFarm a reality is make a commitment on where to locate it. Recently, the administration has floated plans to relocate the police and fire station from its current location in Union Square to the former waste transfer site on which ArtFarm is planned. I’m a strong supporter of our police and fire departments, but displacing ArtFarm to move the police and fire station to make room for private development is not acceptable to me. I will not support moving the police and fire station unless a suitable nearby alternate location for ArtFarm is identified and secured. 

I am also pushing for the city to create a long-term capital projects plan to ensure that civic, cultural, and open space needs are considered and planned for over the long term. This should include identifying the permanent location for ArtFarm and avoid a situation like this happening again. The creative community must be part of this conversation, identifying our city-wide needs and opportunities, and helping to make sure there is a long-term strategy to meet them.

I support City investment in ArtFarm and look forward to evaluating funding mechanisms that may be proposed. I would like to see Community Preservation Act funding dedicated to making ArtFarm a reality, and would support the city bonding against future CPA revenue to provide the funding that ArtFarm needs.

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?

Somerville’s diversity is its strength. This has always been a city of immigrants. When I was growing up, it was predominantly immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and Portugal who came here seeking a better life. Over the past few decades, I’ve seen Somerville’s ethnic diversity increase as it has become a more desirable place to live. We have also seen an increase in the number of immigrants living here as Somerville has increasingly become a place that provides the opportunities and quality of life that immigrants come here to seek. 

As Alderman, I’m proud of the work we have done to make Somerville a welcoming place for all. One of the most important votes I have taken was a vote to reaffirm Somerville’s status as a “Sanctuary City” in response to the Trump Administration’s threat to withhold federal funding from our city. A loss of federal funding is not something to be taken lightly, but standing up for our immigrants as valued members of our community is the right thing to do.

Housing affordability is a major challenge to sustaining our socioeconomic diversity. There are no easy solutions here, but I encourage you to read my position statement on housing affordability available on my website and my more detailed response to the questionnaire on ‘affordability and development’. This includes support for programs including a ‘right of first refusal’, transfer tax targeting investors and house flippers, and new regulations on short term rentals.

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?

Much of our cultural and civic life happens not just in dedicated venues but in our streets, and I believe there is a great opportunity for public art and creative placemaking here. As chair of the Board of Aldermen’s Committee on Traffic & Parking, I’ve pushed for speed limit reductions and traffic calming to make our streets safer and more welcoming for people to be in. I’m also a strong supporter of the Neighborways program, and am proud that Neighborways founder and Ward 3 resident Mark Chase has endorsed me for reelection. Neighborways is an initiative that uses street murals as highly visible public art that works as traffic calming, beautifying our streets, and making them safer at the same time. This program is funded by a grant through 2017, and I will be working with Mark Chase and others to identify permanent funding in the city budget to allow for the expansion of Neighborways in order to expand public street art throughout the city.

Every part of our streets is an opportunity to think creatively about public art and placemaking. This includes everything from using the face of manhole covers, curbs, and signage as a venue for art, to applying design castings into concrete retaining walls, to making street furniture into sculpture, to finding new spaces for murals. Over the past four years I have worked hard to bring different city departments and residents together to help make the Neighborways program a reality, and in my next term I would welcome the opportunity to work with the creative community to find new ways that public art can be integrated into our streets.

Many cities have a “percent for art” program in order to leverage private development to create new public art, which benefits all residents. This was considered as part of the recent rezoning in Union Square, but many in the community pushed for a ‘community benefits agreement’ model that established a dedicated source of funding from private development that could be allocated to a variety of things. While it will ultimately be up to residents through a neighborhood council to decide how this will be allocated, I hope to see the creative community engage in helping to make these decisions, and hope to see a significant portion allocated to public art.

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?

The creation of space for arts and creative uses is a priority for me, and that is why I supported Bow Market in Union Square, which will provide a range of spaces for artists and a theatre.  he project is unique and faced many regulatory hurdles, but I worked to help navigate these and the market is now under construction. I’m proud to have the support of Mark Boyes-Watson and Zach Baum, both Ward 3 residents, who are spearheading the creation of Bow Market.

I’m also proud to have voted to pass the Union Square zoning ordinance which includes a requirement that 5% of new commercial space be dedicated to arts and creative uses. This will result in the creation of nearly 60,000 square feet of dedicated arts and creative space, which is nearly twice the size of Artisan’s Asylum. 

Somerville will now be taking up a rewrite of the entire Somerville Zoning Ordinance, and I’ll be pushing just as hard to make sure we are protecting and incentivizing arts and creative space. I support the creation of fabrications districts, but I had concerns that the specific way this was written into the last version of the zoning ordinance did not adequately protect the space for arts and creative use over the long term. I’ll be paying close attention to this when it is proposed again.

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 a parent, I’ve seen firsthand how the arts has positively impacted my son and strongly support opportunities for arts education. Somerville has a great community of artists and any opportunity to expand collaboration between the Somerville Public Schools visual arts department and the artist community is something that should be pursued. I have strongly supported plans for a new Somerville High School because, among other things, it will include spaces for a range of artistic and creative activities that do not existing today. These spaces will provide more opportunities for collaboration and engagement between students and artists outside the school.

We can also engage students in the arts outside of school by making the arts more present in our communities. Last year I worked with a group of residents putting together a grant application for a Neighborways project that included a street mural. These residents planned a process where the children who live around the mural location would generate sketches and ideas, and then work with a local artist who would translate their ideas into a final design. This would allow the children to see and experience the creative process and see their ideas realized in something they would experience everyday. While the application ultimately was not chosen for the grant, this offers a model for how youth can be engaged in the arts and I would strongly encourage and support this happening in other locations.

One idea for arts funding is expanding the Local Cultural Council grant program. The LCC program, overseen by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, is one of the core programs of the Somerville Arts Council and provides a tremendous benefit to our community. I have supported the requirement that developers be required to contribute “community benefits” funding for major projects built in Somerville, and this could be a source of new funding to expand or supplement the program.


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