Mayoral Candidates Make Their Pitch to the Arts and Culture Community

Boston mayoral candidates John Barros, Andrea Campbell, and Michelle Wu shared their vision for Boston’s post-pandemic future and the role that artists and arts and cultural organizations will play in it at Create the Vote Boston 2021’s Boston Mayoral Candidate Forum on Art, Culture, and Creativity   Sept. 2.  

Moderated by WBUR arts and culture reporter Cristela Guerra, the virtual event opened with a poem by Micah Rosegrant, a Roslindale poet and organizer, titled “Invocation to Together Breath,” and a land acknowledgement from J.Cottle, executive director of Dunamis.  

Cottle also highlighted both the importance of arts and culture to Boston’s economic recovery from the pandemic and the need for the next mayor to prioritize support for expanding access to the arts citywide.

From there, the attending candidates gave three-minute opening statements (the remaining candidates, Annissa Essaibi George and acting Mayor Kim Janey were unable to attend due to schedule conflicts, but both provided video statements that were included in Creating Boston 2021: Celebrating Creative Joy  and Community Engagement, a video about the impact of arts in Boston).  

Drawing on his ethnic roots in the Cape Verde Islands, Barros said “Arts has been part of my culture and upbringing from day one. The Cape Verde Islands, ten islands off the coast of Senegal, is known best for our exports of the arts.” He said he drew inspiration from the islands’ artistic traditions for his Dorchester eatery, Restaurante Cesaria, which serves Cape Verdean cuisine and showcases native musical styles. 

“We are such a large population but we did not have a platform,” Barros said of Boston’s Cape Verdean community. “That was super important for me.” 

Barros added that his effort as a young organizer in Roxbury—he is the former head of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative—resulted in the creation of the iconic Nubian Roots mural on Dudley Street in 1993. “We created that to bring expression of cultural value and arts to our neighborhood,” he said.

In his role as former Mayor Marty Walsh’s Chief of Economic Development, Barros said he advocated to boost the Boston Cultural Council’s budget and supported the city’s first Percent for Art program.  

Campbell, who has represented District 4 on the Boston City Council since 2016, emphasized her lifelong roots in the city and the inequity she has seen and experienced—including her father’s incarceration and the death of her brother in state prison, while she went on to become a successful lawyer and public servant.  

“Everything I do as a public servant, city councilor and now as a candidate for mayor is always looking at how do we make sure that this city provides everyone ... equitable opportunity regardless of their neighborhood, their industry, whether they’re born here … or they got here this morning,” she said. “I was a poor girl growing up in Roxbury, a life torn apart by incarceration, and yet this city gave me everything.”  

Campbell noted that the neighborhoods she represents—Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan and Roslindale—are often under-resourced, leading her to spearhead initiatives like the 2019 Mattapan Jazz and Unity Festival in 2019, to draw crowds to the district. 

“I was done going downtown for live performance,” said Campbell. “I wanted it to happen right in Mattapan. So we know we have a lot of work to do to ensure every community has access to the arts and that we make it easier for folks to be able to create events in their community. I am activating city-owned lots right now and not just for housing purposes, but mixed development including artist housing and hopefully retail space as well that can be coupled with the housing to allow creative space. So I have been doing the work for a long time. I am not merely a story. I’m all about the work.” 

Wu, an at-large city councilor first elected in 2013, framed the importance of the arts in her life with the story of how music and the arts helped her parents transcend the language barrier when they immigrated from China.  

“I remember finding the scores of some of my mom's pieces from when she sang with the community choir pretty shortly after she arrived in the United States, painstakingly transcribing the English words of ‘Porgy and Bess’ into Chinese on top of it,” Wu recalled. “I just got to play piano a little earlier today at a visit to a senior home. It is the way that I find my core.”  

Such opportunities must be available to all individuals in the city, especially coming out of the “trauma, isolation and loss” of the pandemic, Wu added.  

With remote work giving rise to the ability for workers to live anywhere, cities need to give people good reasons to live there, she also said. “That is the essence of our arts, culture, and restaurant scene. We have always had this in Boston, but what we need to do a better job of is ensuring that the leadership to connect, invest in, create space for, and most of all lift up, is absolutely fundamental to our city in every possible way.” 

Candidates then fielded questions from Guerra, the first asking them for their “unique ideas” to bolster the city’s creative sector, which lost nearly $9 million and countless job opportunities during the last 18 months.  

Barros, calling investment in the arts “critical” to Boston’s economic competitiveness, said he would propose a program similar to the state’s Community Preservation Act, which would slightly increase city real estate taxes to pay for arts investment to the tune of $35 million annually. Barros would also seek to fund arts and cultural investment by working with the legislature to set aside more of the state’s gaming revenue to be used more consistently on arts and cultural spending. Last, he pledged to continue investing in Boston Creates, the 10-year initiative launched under Mayor Walsh to create long-term stability in the city’s arts infrastructure—particularly the programming that aims to support cultural equity and diversity. 

Campbell lamented how the city’s artists have largely been left out of conversations about essential workers and the struggles they have faced in creating spaces for residents to come together amid the pandemic, while also dealing with their own economic and health challenges. Campbell wants to make it easier for artists to access relief funds and other financial supports—including public funding—in order to ensure that every community has a cultural district and the capacity to stage events, house artists, and have retail space so that artists can live in the communities where they work. Campbell also expressed support for arts education in all Boston schools to create career pathways into the creative sector. 

Wu said she is committed to increasing the city’s arts investment through the capital budget and with federal pandemic relief funds. She also committed to employing artists throughout city government to help guide planning conversations and outreach efforts on urgent issues including climate change, housing, health, safety, and justice. Wu called for the reform of city institutions with the goal of ensuring that “arts is on the same plane as every other thing we’re talking about: density, height, transportation, along with how we grow our city.” 

Candidates were then asked what revenue mechanisms they’d identify to reach and maintain Create the Vote Boston’s policy goal of an equitable $20 million annual allocation for arts and culture. 

Barros reiterated his plan for adding a small real estate tax dedicated for arts funding that would generate $35 million per year. He expressed support for finding more ways to fund artists, pledging to explore a guaranteed minimum income for artists, and ways to open career pathways for artists. 

Campbell suggested that $20 million actually wasn’t enough, based on the challenges she experienced—despite being a city councilor—in working with city departments to stage the Mattapan Jazz and Unity Festival. The city’s arts and culture department, she noted, wanted to help “but they had very limited resources.” Like Wu, Campbell also expressed the desire to see artists employed throughout city government, particularly when it comes to efforts to respond to racial inequities. Additionally, Campbell said the city must tap into the city’s lucrative private sector to fund the expansion of arts and culture in our schools and communities.

Wu tied the sustainability of a $20 million arts budget to Boston’s ability to keep pace with other U.S. cities and to truly benefit from Boston’s well of artistic talent. Boston is a city “where we are not short of resources,” said Wu. She pledged to ensure that a $20 million investment is sustained through the city’s operating and capital budgets and agreed with Barros that creating a dedicated, sustainable revenue source for arts and culture—and working with the legislature to achieve that—should be a priority for the next mayor. 

The candidates were also asked how they plan to keep creatives in Boston, in the face of widespread lack of affordable housing, studio space, and rehearsal venues.  

Barros talked up his role as cochair of Imagine Boston 2030, a citywide strategic plan in which he advocated for the inclusion of city-funded arts innovation districts that included affordable work and living space for artists. He also discussed his work leading the Upham’s Corner Arts and Innovation District implementation plan, which is currently developing artist live-work space in the neighborhood. “We can do this in every neighborhood,” said Barros. 

Campbell agreed the city needs to be more intentional about creating and maintaining artist housing. She pointed out that through her work on the city’s Vacant Lots Initiative, civic leaders and neighborhood residents have collaborated to reclaim blighted corners for various projects, including artist housing, studios and workspace, and said there needs to be more such innovation. Campbell also wants to streamline the process for applying for housing to encourage people to stay. She also said that the availability of childcare, livable wages, integrated communities, and access to healthcare must be part of any conversation about helping artists remain in Boston. 

Wu said that the increasing cost of living in Boston was forcing people out of the city, including artists and especially BIPOC artists—even though they’re often stabilizing forces in their neighborhoods. Wu said artists must be at the table in discussions having to do with housing redevelopment, affordable housing, and workspace “thinking about how we grow, and plan and set the rules” for housing in our neighborhoods and the city as a whole. 

Last, the candidates were asked to describe their vision for integrating creative youth development into their policy priorities. 

Barros talked more generally about the need to integrate arts and cultural planning into all aspects of city government and the need to strengthen career pathways for artists, including a workforce incentive program in which the city would underwrite the employment of artists by businesses that don’t traditionally hire them (for example, a business that hires a performer for a company retreat). Such a program could also potentially create summer jobs for youth in the city, said Barros.   

Campbell, drawing on her early legal career representing mostly low-income students in education cases—involved special education services, discipline issues, etc.—talked about the importance of prioritizing youth development in all aspects of policy-making. In many instances, said Campbell, schools that utilized restorative justice practices and arts and cultural programming saw less litigation than those that did not.  

“It is critical to think about how we make sure this community is made a part of every policy decision,” said Campbell, noting that the first hearing she held as chair of the Public Safety Committee was on youth development. While a parade of youth that spoke at the four-hour meeting testified about the positive impact of numerous nonprofit community organizations on their lives, organizational leaders lamented that they did so with no dedicated city funding, prompting Campbell to start the Youth Development Fund, which now tops a $1 million.  

Wu ​​decried the treatment of arts education in city schools as a luxury that is only provided when there is a budget surplus. “We need to have a foundation budget and we need to have a commitment for whole child education. That includes ensuring as a baseline that every single young person has access to arts education and arts opportunities right in our school buildings. That is the starting point.”  

Wu further suggested that youth should be provided creative career pathways such as paid internships created through partnerships between the city and organizations of all sizes citywide. Any such efforts, Wu added, must be designed and led by young people if they are to be effective. “This should come from young people at the table making decisions,” she said. 

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published this page in CTVB2021 news 2021-09-13 09:57:22 -0400

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