Mayor Walsh’s Chief Policy Advisor Could Be a Game-Changer for the Arts

As we await the fulfillment of newly-minted Mayor Marty Walsh’s campaign pledge to appoint a cabinet-level arts commissioner, another appointee has already given the arts community reason to cheer: Joyce Linehan. In one of his first mayoral appointments, Walsh appointed the arts PR maven, indie record label exec, and politically-wired Dorchester native to be his chief of policy. (Linehan was a former board member of MASSCreative; she resigned after Walsh won election as mayor.)

By putting Linehan in the driver’s seat on City Hall policy initiatives, Walsh has the potential to create a more cohesive, vibrant, community-oriented arts scene and jumpstart a true creative economy.

If you’re not already familiar with Linehan, this recent Boston Magazine profile will tell you all you need to know, and it will probably make you giddy.

In particular, this passage toward the end of the article spells out how Linehan, a close friend and inner-circle campaign advisor, schooled Walsh about the importance of the arts as a cultural and economic driver during his campaign:

“She pushed me on the issue,” he said. In some cases, Walsh would wonder why he wasn’t meeting with a big crowd in Dorchester or South Boston rather than with four or five people from the arts community downtown. But he began to see the arts as part of the identity of the city, an avenue for economic growth, and a way to create opportunities for young people. He found that when he began to bring up the arts at some of these larger community forums, heads in the audience would nod in agreement.

Walsh’s championing of the arts became a keystone of his campaign — which had the effect of underlining Linehan’s influence. After the election, Walsh quickly committed to creating a cabinet-level “arts czar” position, and also pledged to earmark a percentage of city revenue to arts funding. Even before Walsh set foot in City Hall, it was a remarkable commitment of resources — a victory for Boston’s creative class, and an impressive triumph for Linehan, who is also playing a top role in Walsh’s transition team.

“She won,” laughed Walsh about Linehan’s schedule-busting small meetings. “And I’m grateful for it.”

What’s unique about Linehan is her combination of deep roots in Boston’s arts community, its independent music scene and her grassroots political skills and political connections. This is a woman who founded a successful media consultancy that specializes in the arts, an indie record label and ran an artist management company for 10 years. She logged 13 years as the public relations director for First Night Boston and six directing communications for Boston Landmarks Orchestra. She had a gig as a talent scout with Sub Pop records, the Seattle-based record company that unleashed Nirvana on the world. Eddie Vedder, Courtney Love and Riot Grrl icons Bikini Kill have reportedly been house guests. Oh, and she effectively launched Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign from her living room and is the go-to gal for scads of candidates looking to connect with Boston’s progressive grassroots, including Gov. Deval Patrick.

Someone who is so intimately acquainted with the arts world and can sell the economic benefits of that world to the political class, many of whom have long dismissed the arts as frivolous when faced with resolving bread and butter issues, can potentially accomplish a lot.

Whomever Walsh appoints as his arts and culture czar will no doubt have an ally in Linehan. That can’t hurt either.

But ultimately, Boston will only reap the economic and social benefits of being a world-class hub of arts and culture with the vision and leadership of our mayor working from an integrated strategic plan that includes dedicated funding and encompasses a broad range of city departments, from the school system to the parks department to our development and city planning agencies. Such a plan must also engage community-based cultural and civic organizations and ensure that established and emerging artists can afford to live and work in the city.

Former Mayor Thomas M. Menino laid a strong foundation on which Walsh can build. Thanks to Menino, arts education is once again a part of the curriculum in many Boston schools, and we’re home to a visual and performing arts high school. (Though as Jon Garelick points out in this strong oped from Saturday’s Jan. 11, 2014 Boston Globe, we will need an arts-focused superintendent of schools to keep that momentum going.)

The once-sketchy stretch of Huntington Ave. between Mass. Ave. and Longwood Ave. has been transformed into the Avenue of the Arts. Our Washington Street theaters have been renovated and restored. And yet, the city’s arts funding has historically been shockingly low compared with other major U.S. cities. As MASSCreative Executive Director Matt Wilson regularly points out, Boston’s arts funding—just over $1 million—pales in comparison to cities like Chicago ($30 million) and Los Angeles ($40 million). Seattle, a city almost exactly the same size as Boston, has an arts budget that tops $7 million. During Menino’s tenure, the Office of Arts and Humanities established by his predecessor Ray Flynn was merged with the Office of Business and Cultural and Development and the Office of Special Events, Tourism and Film to form the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Tourism, and Special Events, which may have sapped support and diluted the vision for a robust arts-driven economy and culture. 

Every mayor has agendas and priorities. It is Walsh’s turn to put his stamp on the City of Boston. With his appointment of Linehan, there’s good reason to believe that he plans to make good on his campaign promise that the arts would be an integral part of his agenda.

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