Jon Mitchell Response to Arts & Culture Questionnaire

Personal Connection

What is your personal connection to the arts community in New Bedford? Do you have a favorite local artist? Is there a particular arts event you enjoy attending on a regular basis?

  • JM: The deepest personal connection I have to the arts in New Bedford is that I count among my friends many of our wonderful New Bedford artists, and am as proud as any citizen of New Bedford should be that we have such a diverse, vibrant, talented pool of artists living and working here, and contributing to our city’s character and identity. I’m a member of the Z and have donated to various arts organizations over the years. For years my daughters have participated in the New Bedford Ballet and South Coast Children’s Theater, so I am acutely aware of the value of these programs and so many others for New Bedford kids. My tastes run along the more traditional end of the spectrum, but I also appreciate what some of our more non-traditional street and guerilla artists do. For example, I love the Tom Bob stuff that pops up overnight all around the city and adds color and whimsy to the streetscape. My favorite is probably the Pac Man thing on Second Street downtown.
  • At the risk of pandering, NB Open Studios is truly one of my favorite arts events, and I really like the student art show that New Bedford Public Schools puts on every May on AHA! night. AHA! itself is always great, as are the various shows and openings at the New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks! In terms of performing arts, my family never misses New Bedford Festival Theatre’s summer production at the Z, and I enjoy the Summer Sound Series we started through our Tourism and Marketing office a couple of summers ago.

Arts Education and Youth Programs

Art instruction increases achievement across all academic disciples and develops the whole child. What will you do as Mayor to champion arts education with our youth both in our schools and in our communities? How will you balance the importance of arts education with the constant pull to “teach to the test”?

  • JM: While funding is a perennial challenge for our schools, and it may be tempting to look to cuts in the arts as a way to balance budgets, this has not been, nor will it ever be my approach to school funding. As Mayor and Ex-Officio Chair of the School Committee, I’m committed to ensuring the arts are funded at the highest possible level, and supported by the broader arts community. I demonstrated this commitment when New Bedford Public Schools faced cuts to its Fine Arts programs due to a proposed City Council budget reduction in 2013. The arts community within and without our schools mobilized to restore this funding, advocating to school administration, the school committee, and my administration to make sure the funding was restored and the arts were spared. Standing together, we made our case, and I’m proud to say our effort was successful. Planned cuts to visual and performing arts programs were avoided. Since then, the NBPS band program has grown tremendously, reaching participation levels not seen in over a decade, and the drama program at the High School is more active than it’s been since the retirement of George Charbonneau and Armand Marchand some 15 years ago. I also supported the successful Innovation School application that resulted in the Renaissance Academy, which is now serving hundreds of students with an arts-focused curriculum. These are just a few examples of the momentum building in our schools’ arts programs, a momentum upon which we intend to build.
  • In addition to these efforts within our public schools, I will continue to support with direct funding and such as Invest in Kids and Community Development Block Grants and in-kind resources, the many wonderful out-of-school arts programs offered by our community partners.

Economic Development

New Bedford’s reputation as an arts destination has been climbing for several years. This year, it’s continued that trend by landing on even more “Top Ten” creative cities in the nation lists. It has enhanced its reputation as home to a large community of artists and artisans. How would you utilize this community to help make New Bedford a place where people want to live, work, play, and visit.

  • JM: I absolutely agree that the creative community in New Bedford is an asset that can be better mobilized and touted to attract people who want to live in and visit authentic, cool places. I also realize that growth and investment often follow in places that establish themselves as artists’ havens. As we speak, I’m looking into ways we can attract some resources to our city to add professional expertise and capacity to city government to maximize the potential of our creative economy. An important order of business for me is also to develop a cultural plan for New Bedford. I also believe that my strategy of focusing on creating a clean, safe, beautiful, and vibrant downtown will pay dividends in terms of keeping the artists we have here and attracting more working artists who need an affordable alternative to the big metro areas where artists have historically gravitated. I am proud of my administration’s record of accomplishment in the area of arts and culture. Over the last three-plus years, we have:
  • > Encouraged, initiated, and funded public art projects all over New Bedford, including several murals and temporary sculpture installations (ex. Seaport ArtWalk), as well as functional art like the Adirondack chairs in Wing’s Court. These efforts will only increase in the months and years ahead. In fact, the City has partnered with New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks!, WHALE, and AHA! on a creative place making grant through the NEA’s Our Town gran program. If funded, the grant would enable the partnership to establish an “art-way” connecting three key public spaces in our downtown
    > Re-established the City’s Office of Tourism and Marketing, which has as one of its major priorities promoting cultural tourism in the City, and initiating and organizing placemaking activities
    > Established the New Bedford Seaport Cultural District and provided ongoing staff support through the Office of Tourism and Marketing; The SCD has been instrumental in several place making and public art projects in the downtown–the Seaport Art Walk, movies in Custom House Square, and Deck the Windows, among others.
    > Saved the Zeiterion Theatre from possible closure, and invested upwards of $2 million in capital improvements in the City-owned building in which it’s housed
    > Invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital improvements and ongoing maintenance and repairs to the New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks!, which is housed in a City-owned building
    > Built Custom House Square, a work of art in and of itself and an increasingly popular site for arts and cultural programming of all kinds
    > Hosted, along with our partners at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and many other community participants, the wildly successful visit of the Charles W. Morgan, which included a wide variety of complementary arts-related programs and events
    > Provided ongoing marketing and in-kind logistical support for AHA!
    > Supported, both financially and operationally, the Great Neighborhoods Initiative in the Acushnet Avenue International Marketplace, which has spurred a host of public art and placemaking projects
    > Launched the hugely popular free Summer Sounds Series on Pier 3 and in Custom House Square, for which we’ve applied for grant funding in the hopes of expanding the number of shows
    > Provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in in-kind logistical support for numerous cultural events hosted by our community partners

The broad creative community in the city includes graphic designers, videographers, web developers, photographers and others as well as fine artists. Collectively, the community possesses unique skills which could be employed in both the public and private sector. What role do you envision the Mayor of New Bedford having in facilitating meaningful connections between the arts and business communities?

  • JM: There is no question we have a top-notch creative sector in New Bedford, one which has been put to use in a variety of ways in a number of our City departments over the course of my administration. From the murals and other public art installations I mentioned above, to the many graphic design and video production jobs we’ve contracted, to the various building and landscape projects for which we’ve hired local architects, my administration deeply values the skills and abilities of local creative enterprises and workers and looks to employ them whenever it is necessary and prudent to do so. City government can validate the value of engaging the creative sector in projects and programs in the private sector by touting the positive outcomes and experiences we’ve had working with these companies, and affirming for them how they add value.

Addressing New Bedford’s Socioeconomic Issues

Just as any other city, New Bedford faces many economic and social issues, among them workforce development, public safety, and health care. Can you provide examples on how you would integrate the arts, culture, and creative community in solving social and economic challenges?

  • JM: As I said above, I recognize that there is a lot of untapped economic potential in our creative sector. Maximizing that potential has been and will continue to be a major focus of my administration going forward. The creative sector creates economic value in and of itself, through employment, purchasing power, real estate investment, etc., so it behooves any city to create the conditions that will attract and retain creative people and enterprises. But the arts also have a tremendous catalyzing effect because of their spin-off economic benefit and their role in improving our city’s overall quality of life, making New Bedford a more desirable place to live, work, and play.
  • A concrete example of how both of these dynamics have played out with just a relatively small additional City investment is at the Zeiterion Theatre. A little over two years ago, the Z was teetering on the brink of financial collapse. Their failure would have had devastating consequences for the community. We immediately developed and implemented a plan to stabilize the Z with an emergency infusion of major philanthropic funding from local banks, while we worked to devise a long-term strategy. We ultimately decided establish a management contract arrangement for the theater, for which the Z would have to compete via request for proposals, as is common practice for municipally-owned theaters across the country. Their successful proposal resulted in a management contract that provides a measure of stability and predictability to their fiscal situation that has enabled them to leverage other resources, grow membership and revenue, and create genuine positive momentum. The Z is in a better place now than it has ever been, and its impact on the downtown and on the city as a whole is huge and growing. Looking ahead, the City will continue to make catalytic investments in new creative endeavors, such as the Co-Creative Space on Union Street, a collaboration of WHALE, AHA!, and the New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks!
  • In terms of the creative sector’s ability to catalyze social change, this plays out on a daily basis with our young people in school, and also through our community-based arts organizations that work with kids outside school time. Programs like NBAM/A!’s ArtMobile, Dream Out Loud’s Creative Careers Program, Third Eye Unlimited and the National Park’s YAP, the New Bedford Ballet, and many more, New Bedford kids are getting access to critical exposure to the arts and learning the values of positive self-expression, commitment, hard work, collaboration, and the thrill of creative achievement. The positive, life-affirming experiences people of all ages have with the arts, either as participants or spectators, can provide a critical counter-weight to the difficult circumstances too many of our residents experience in their day-to-day lives. The arts inspire and open people’s eyes to new possibilities. In a place where the reality of day-to-day life can foster mindset of scarcity and hopelessness, the arts can introduce people to an ethos of abundance and limitless possibility. Civic and government leaders play a critical role in ensuring arts engagement is available to everyone. Even modest investments in the institutions and programs that offer engagement with the arts, through funding sources like the City’s Invest in Kids and Community Development Block Grant programs, are vital and, again, leverage additional investment that can help sustain and increase their impacts.

New Bedford’s Support and Role in the Creative Community

Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to exempt original and limited edition works of art from state sales tax in 2013. As Mayor of New Bedford, would you seek to petition the legislature to do the same in the city and/or help push for a similar statewide exemption in Massachusetts?

  • JM: We’ve effectively used tax incentives locally to spur growth in the arts. For example, a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) agreement the City entered into with Darn It!, Inc., facilitated that company’s purchase of the imperiled Hatch Street Studios building, enabling its ongoing stability and growth. I’m happy to advocate to our State Legislature, along with other like-minded communities, a state sales tax exemption for original and limited edition works for art. Regarding the 1% for Art program, I commit to taking a closer look at cities, like Philadelphia, that have instituted it in order to get a better handle on its various impacts, fiscal and otherwise.
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