House Chu NEA Visit

Boston’s Arts Moment

A visit from NEA Chairman Jane Chu confirms the transformative potential—already being unleashed—of arts and culture in Boston.

Two weeks ago, Boston had the opportunity to host National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu for a visit to local arts organizations, to meet with local arts leaders, and to tour parts of our city where the arts have been a core part of community revitalization efforts. The chairman also met with Boston’s new chief of arts and culture, Julie Burros, and several other members of the Mayor’s cabinet, to learn about Boston Creates, the City’s recently-launched cultural planning process, and the more visible role arts is already playing across many facets of city government.

Chairman Chu agreed to include Boston as part of a New England tour at the invitation of Barr President Jim Canales, who joined her for the day. As a snapshot of the lively social media discussion sparked by the Chairman’s visit (and the Globe op-ed she and Jim authored together), we compiled and shared this Storify last week. With the benefit of a bit more time and distance from that bright and sunny first workday in May, we offer three final reflections:

  • It starts with community. Our first stop of the day was the Upham’s Corner neighborhood in Dorchester and the Fairmount Cultural Corridor, which is a three-year-old effort to use arts and culture as a catalyst for community revitalization. From Boston Foundation President Paul Grogan, to Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative Arts & Culture Manager Ramona Alexander, to others involved at different times and in different ways, we heard that the impetus and ongoing direction and leadership of this exciting and continuing project has always been from the community itself—with the City and area funders bringing critical support to foster and unleash that potential. Chairman Chu noted how much sustainability depends on just such a balance, with community members creating the vision, identifying their priorities, and setting the agenda for change.
  • It’s the whole, not the parts. Later in the day, David Dower and David Howse of Emerson College led us on a walk down Washington Street in downtown, through the neighborhood once known as Boston’s “Combat Zone,” but which is now a vibrant center of arts activity and one of Boston’s fastest-growing residential communities. Key to this development was Emerson’s commitment, when the City agreed to sell it multiple abandoned theatres, to create spaces for the benefit of the broader community—to pledge itself to strengthening the whole sector, not itself only. This is evident in both ArtsEmerson’s programming, which has always aimed to complement, not compete, with existing Boston theater companies, and to draw in new audiences; as well as in partnerships with other presenting organizations, like the small nonprofit Boston Asian American Film Festival, which, after years in makeshift venues, now presents in Emerson’s state-of-the-art screening room.
  • What a moment for Boston. As we left Boston City Hall, Chairman Chu and several of her staff all emphasized how fortunate Boston is—and how unusual compared to other cities—to have a mayor and a cabinet full of leaders who so clearly recognize the power and potential of arts and culture. Indeed, Boston’s incredible moment of opportunity was a recurring theme throughout the day, as we took in the new Janet Echelman sculpture soaring above the Greenway and as we made our way from downtown to Artists for Humanity in South Boston to close out the day with a reception of NEA grantee organizations and other local arts leaders. Don’t take this for granted, they urged us. Don’t waste this rare moment of opportunity.

It was encouraging to have such strong and clear confirmation from Chairman Chu of something so many have worked on for so long—now coming to fruition in exciting ways. It is a rare moment for arts and culture in Boston. And the time to engage in the collective work of shaping a world-class arts and culture city is now.

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