Boston needs to invest in a new generation of artists

By Paul S. Grogan and Jim Canales, President and Trustee, Barr Foundation

This piece was originally published June 6, 2019 in the Boston Globe.

It is often said that “demography is destiny.” As detailed in a recent Boston Foundation report, “The Changing Faces of Greater Boston,” our region is undergoing an extraordinary demographic change. Take just one data point: every one of Greater Boston’s 147 cities and towns has experienced an increase in its nonwhite population since 1990. We also know from all too many incidents over the past 30 years, most recently at the Museum of Fine Arts, that changing demographics do not, on their own, make communities more welcoming, inclusive, respectful, and caring of each other. That requires intentionality. And it is one of the many reasons arts and creativity are so vital.

Our two foundations — The Boston Foundation and Barr Foundation — focus on a range of issues influenced by these demographic shifts, such as education, health, climate change, economic development, and housing. But we also focus on the arts as an essential issue.

Performance from NewAveArts event Oct 10 2018
A scene from the Avenues to the Arts event at Hubweek 2019

The past decades have seen a wave of diverse new talents emerge, bringing new elements of arts and culture to the wider region. But despite our longstanding status as a city of world-class arts institutions, Boston Foundation research has shown that Boston has neglected our smaller organizations. Relative to other cities, we have not prioritized investment in an arts ecosystem that could elevate the new perspectives we so urgently need.

For this reason, three years ago, our foundations supported Boston Creates, Mayor Marty Walsh’s effort to develop the city’s first-ever cultural plan. The resulting community process engaged more than 5,000 Bostonians and gave shape to a collective vision of a city where opportunities to create, connect, and be inspired are abundant, sustainable, and accessible to all.

Animal Heads

Among Boston Creates’ five overarching goals was an aspiration to “keep artists in Boston and attract new ones here, recognizing and supporting artists’ essential contribution to creating and maintaining a thriving, healthy, and innovative city.” In response, the city has led by doubling the Boston Cultural Council budget, and by launching an Artist’s Resource Desk and new programs for artists — such as the Artist Fellowship Award, Boston Artist in Residence Program, Opportunity Fund, and “Percent for Art Program,” which dedicates 1 percent of the city’s capital borrowing budget to commission public art.

In alignment with these efforts, our foundations in 2016 launched Live Arts Boston, offering grants of up to $15,000 to individual artists and small companies to produce and perform new works. We announced the most recent round of awards last month. To date, LAB has made 186 grants, totaling more than $2.3 million. LAB has also provided over $500,000 to support recipients of LAB grants to strengthen their networks and develop the business and other skills that artists need to achieve their career goals.

Veronica Robles

What the producers and performers have been able to do with this funding is remarkable. Ellice Patterson, executive director of Abilities Dance, produced the first-ever run of full-length shows by the organization, which promotes dance for individuals with and without disabilities. Global jazz group MIXCLA, comprising Berklee College of Music alums from Chile, Japan, and Cuba, released their first full-length album and promptly garnered a Boston Music Awards nomination. Latino cultural icon Veronica Robles assembled Boston’s first-ever all-female Mariachi band.

We could add dozens of other examples. These artists represent the new Boston. More than 70 percent of the funded projects are led by artists of color. They come from places, nations, and backgrounds that have often been underrepresented in Greater Boston’s arts ecosystem. A third had never applied for or received a grant. Bostonians have now experienced over 1,000 performances of their works.

Investments in the arts are investments in our civic infrastructure. They elevate new voices and perspectives that capture Boston’s dynamism and diversity. When we expand the resources available for these artists too, we make it possible for more artists to thrive, and to foster more vibrant, inclusive, and engaged communities.

Greenway Exhibit
Public art on the Greenway

We have made progress, but we are not done. For Boston to join places like New York, Los Angeles, Austin, or Memphis as an attractive place for artists to do their work and build their careers, it will require greater investment and committed partnership from individuals, philanthropy, government, and the private sector.

Boston is among few cities that can count on a united commitment to the arts from their leading community foundation and one of their largest private foundations. We are also fortunate to have a strong tradition of giving to the arts from generous individuals, and to have leadership at City Hall committed to sparking an “arts and culture renaissance” in Boston. These are assets to build upon. Yet, to ensure that our ever-changing communities remain creative, vibrant, and inclusive, we must prioritize the arts — and lift up a new generation of artists — as a key dimension of our region’s strength.

Paul Grogan is President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. Jim Canales is President and Trustee at the Barr Foundation.