JT Scott'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.

I moved to Somerville because of my deep connection to the local arts and performance community. Fighting the displacement of these people who are at the heart of our vibrant scene is an important part of why I’m running.

As an artist, my partner Chandra loved living and working here around other creative people, and we’ve opened our home as part of Somerville Open Studios to showcase her work and actively participate in that celebration of Somerville’s art community. As a property owner, I have hired artists to create murals both inside and outside my business – the walls of CrossFit Somerville are a rotating mural refreshed twice a year by local street artists.

As a sideshow and circus performer, I’ve been glad to perform at Ignite Festival right here in Union Square. As a business owner, I’ve been happy to mentor performers and artists looking to make their passions into their livelihoods. I helped found Esh Circus Arts and then helped them grow and relocate to Park Street here in Ward 2, where they now run adult and children’s programs and provide employment for performers in Somerville.

I celebrate the creativity and initiative of my artist and performer friends, and believe that we all benefit when artists are invited to use the city as a canvass. Events like MUM and Ignite Festival have become cherished neighborhood institutions; the Wandering Cricket Night Market is still a magical underground experiment transforming abandoned streets and box trucks into interactive art and cultural experience. Both have enormous value.

I’ve been happy to support my friends either as a performer, co-founder, or simply as a patron at their events. I look forward to being able to do even more to keep our artists in their homes and give them the stability and environments they need to create even more transformative art in Somerville.

Spaces like Artisan’s Asylum are important incubators for artists, but we can do more. Hiring artists like for public art projects, working with private property owners to encourage public art installations in industrial spaces, and enabling creative use of public plazas for art installations are all important ways the city – and the Board of Aldermen – can create a fertile ground for the growth of local artists.

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?

First and foremost, we can support our creative community by ensuring they can afford to live here and not be displaced by gentrification. Housing affordability is a central issue in my campaign and I believe we must do better to ensure diversity in our city. We must provide a stable housing environment and ensure that artists, immigrants, students, the elderly, and families with small children can all afford to live and stay in Somerville.

I support a number of inventive solutions like establishment of a Community Land Trust and passage of a Right of First Refusal law which would work together to ensure we have permanently affordable housing in Somerville. The Brickbottom Artists’ building is a haven for artists in Somerville, but we need more spaces like that; CLT combined with a First Refusal law can create more of them all over the city.

Right now, the city’s budget is very tight; often there isn’t appetite on the board of aldermen to allocate funding to creative programs that support artists. However, if Somerville had the same level of commercial tax revenue as Cambridge, our budget would nearly double. That is why I’m strongly in support of commercial development that helps Somerville grow our employment and tax base: it will allow us to adequately fund our schools, arts programs, and public services including those with a cultural or artistic focus.

The Somerville Arts Council deserves more funding, and I support increasing funding incrementally in the short term while also striving to expand city revenues for future programs. I’m also very interested in encouraging large developers who come to Somerville to invest in public art partnerships, and am excited by the prospect of Neighborhood Councils prioritizing arts and cultural programming in their negotiations to secure community benefits from major development projects.

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 strongly support ArtFarm as originally conceived: I have pledged to push for granting ArtFarm the full 2 acre lot which was originally promised to it, and would seek to ensure it is a permanent cultural resource programmed and managed by artists – not city administrators.

The current proposal to reduce ArtFarm to a 1-acre site (or less) and insinuation of a mobile or impermanent implementation is simply unacceptable. We must live up to the vision and commitment initially made to ArtFarm and to the artists who have invested years of time and energy into planning and designing it.

The city is granting the current Police HQ property in Union Square to the Master Developer as part of the redevelopment plan there. The real cost of moving the Police Station needs to be included in this transaction, including purchasing property at a new location. Any other course is effectively a public subsidy of a private project to the developer in Union Square. Having that subsidy come at the cost of an innovative public arts and cultural space like ArtFarm is completely antithetical to the rhetoric around supporting the arts in Somerville.

Sale of the police Station requires Board of Alderman approval, and I will withhold that approval until I am sure we will get a fair price for the property which will allow us to purchase land which is NOT already devoted to ArtFarm. We shouldn’t have to subsidize a for-profit developer at the expense of our artists and green space.

I support other inventive solutions to bring culture and the arts to various spaces around Somerville. As mentioned above, I have used the walls of my business to host street art, and would work with property and business owners around Somerville to encourage more uses of this type to showcase local public art.

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?

The creative community, like other parts of Somerville, has the ability to build networks and relationships with our immigrant neighbors to help weave a common community and support network. Art can speak truth to power, and help elevate immigrant and working class voices. I also believe we can work together to create networks of mutual support, and organize to turn out for labor, immigrant groups, and POC-led groups when they hold events across the city.

Residents being priced out of Somerville is a huge problem and a central issue in my campaign. For immigrants it is double jeopardy, because many of the cities around Somerville don’t have the same welcoming atmosphere or Sanctuary protections that Somerville does.

I think it’s incumbent on us to do whatever we can to help immigrants stay in Somerville, and for me that’s not just putting up a banner. It requires us to wrestle with issues of gentrification and displacement and ensure that we are holding developers accountable to provide affordable housing, good jobs, and actually invest in Somerville. We cannot afford to let new development turn Union Square into a place that’s only welcoming to wealthy people, or else we’ll lose the diversity that makes this place great – ethnic, racial, and economic diversity.

As a further example, our hispanic population is miserably underrepresented in current city staffing. We need to do more to promote and hire minorities into city government to bring their voices and perspectives into our public policy and planning.

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’m a strong believer in ensuring development works for residents. We must have affordable housing, good jobs, green space, and support for the arts. I have been involved in the creation of the Union Square Neighborhood Council; this body will negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement with the master developer, US2. We could require funding for Arts through that process that to fund more permanent events and installations in Somerville. Somerville is an extremely attractive place to build for developers, and we should be able to demand support for important cultural and quality of life programs as part of the cost of doing business.

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?

Whether you own or rent, you are feeling the squeeze. I've talked to renters who are forced to move every year by rising rents and doubt they'll ever be able to afford to buy.  I've talked to older residents on fixed incomes being forced out of their homes by rising real estate taxes and utility rates. I've talked to families who have lived in the same house for generations who are now finding their adult children can't buy homes nearby, and are instead being pushed out to other cities. We need bold action to preserve the community we all share whether we've been here three years or three generations. We can do better.

Benevolent Landlord Tax Credit
The city should develop a robust program of incentives for landlords who rent units in the multi-family homes and triple deckers where they live to keep rental costs as low as possible.  Multi-family homes make up a large part of Somerville's rental properties and most landlords don't want to raise rents past a level they know their long-term neighbor tenants can afford–but with rising property taxes they often don't have a choice. A Benevolent Landlord Tax Credit will reduce the property taxes for live-in landlords who commit to keeping rents affordable.

Right of First Refusal Law
This would mean that when an owner sells a property with rental units, the first opportunity to buy would go to the tenants already living there. Tenants can form co-ops and purchase the homes they rent together; immediately stabilizing the neighborhood, preventing displacement, slowing gentrification, increasing homeownership, and helping to nurture the sense of community here in Somerville.

It doesn't hurt the seller in any way–and it doesn't cost the city a dime. It has worked in cities like Washington D.C. and it can work here in Somerville.

Community Land Trusts
Purchasers work in cooperation with the CLT to buy property, leaving ownership of the Land in the Trust while retaining ownership of their buildings.

These organizations help tenants purchase properties by reducing costs, since their mortgage only needs to cover the building and not the land beneath it. This is another proven method for preserving affordable housing while putting community members and residents in the driver's seat in terms of governing their own neighborhood.

The Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, VT and the Dudley Neighbors Incorporated in Boston are leading local examples of Land Trusts. As of 2014 there were over 260 Community Land Trusts in 46 states. Somerville should have one, and I'll be pushing to make that happen immediately.

Artist Specific Housing
The combination of Community Land Trust and Right of First Refusal Law should allow us to create more spaces like Brickbottom Artists Building – permanently affordable spaces for artists.  There’s no reason we can’t have some of these developments to include spaces for artists to work. We need housing desperately for all residents of Somerville to avoid displacement, but we also need to preserve spaces for artists to pursue their trades.

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?

Youth engagement is vital in Somerville. As a parent of a two year old (Independence – she goes by “Indy”) who just started pre-school, I care deeply about educating the whole child. My partner and I have been speaking Italian around Indy and have been careful to ensure she has as many outlets for creativity as possible.

I’m lucky that my partner and I have flexible schedules that allow us to spend extensive time Indy and will be able to provide her cultural programming after school – but too many families don’t have that luxury. Many families have two parents working or are single parent homes where the family needs to rely on after school programming. This is as much an economic justice issue as it is an arts issue.

Somerville has a lot of competing priorities for our budget, but ensuring we educate the whole child and keep Somerville a haven for the arts should be high on the list. We must continue to increase funding for music and arts programs in and after schools. 

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