The Boston Arts Environment | City of Ideas

Posted 02/27/2017 by Allyson Esposito

Unfortunately, the scope of the report did not include artists, creative workers, or the numerous for-profit creative industry entities that are innovating and growing in our region. Data about this part of our ecosystem will be available in June upon the culmination of two significant efforts supported by the Barr Foundation – the Americans for the Arts’ Arts & Economic Prosperity Study V and the New England Foundation for the Arts’ Creative Economy Employment Research Initiative of New England. Both studies help us to more fully understand the economic impact of the arts on our region.

In many ways, the report illuminates the Boston that so many of us cherish – we have a truly robust arts marketplace consisting of more than 1,500 nonprofit arts organizations (comparable to that of NY and SF) including several world class arts institutions, and a community that is deeply passionate about and supportive of the arts. Compared with peer cities, Bostonians support arts organizations through large numbers of ticket purchases and individual philanthropy at very high rates.  

Not all of the news was favorable, however. Boston has relatively few foundations and corporations making grants to the arts and what funding is available is skewed at a scale we are not seeing in other places. In fact, 3 major cultural organizations account for 40% of all arts expenditures. When the influence of these three organizations is removed, the rest of the ecosystem is competing for funding that mirrors significantly smaller arts ecosystems.

More critically, Boston has the lowest per capita funding for the arts of any city in the study. It was the only city in the study where federal funding outweighed state and local funding combined, a fact made more concerning in light of recent threats to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Why does this matter? With an ecosystem that is largely reliant on individual preference (ticket buying and individual donors), as opposed to systems level support, certain parts of the ecosystem are overlooked.  Small to mid-sized arts organizations, the bulk of the ecosystem, have very few sources of support and operate on fairly meager streams of funding. They are largely reliant on earned income that frequently drives risk-averse programmatic choices. Despite a local ethos of innovation in so many fields, by and large, the nonprofit arts ecology is lacking the risk capital to create new work and experiment.  More importantly, for a city which has a majority minority population, Boston has yet to be a place where all people have equitable opportunities for cultural expression. Many of the organizations led by and serving people of color, and offering diverse, global artistic perspectives, work at the smaller end of the nonprofit ecosystem.

Boston has all the raw materials for a truly representative and well-supported arts ecology – talented artists, numerous nonprofits, dedicated individual supporters, an arts-focused mayor and leadership within the City offices, and, Boston Creates, a democratically created, city-wide plan that envisions the culturally vibrant Boston residents and stakeholders want to see ten years from now.

Boston faces unique political challenges, and a number of limitations in how it can raise revenue. Here in Massachusetts we have limited home rule, meaning that our cities and counties are constrained in how they can raise revenue without the approval of the state legislature. Given this, we know the path to public funding will be a more difficult for us than it was for some of the cities and counties we examined in our study.

We recognize that a truly vibrant city must not only preserve and pass along its previous cultural heritage, but must constantly reinvent itself to reflect new ideas and new forms of arts from artists from across this incredibly diverse city. We must embrace the principle that art in Boston should not be a luxury consumed by a few but a shared treasure…a public good to be enjoyed by and representative of everyone, playing a key role in shaping community discourse and change.