‘Arts and culture is inherently a social justice medium’
THE LIFE STORY of Michael Bobbitt is probably very similar to what he would like to replicate for residents statewide as he takes over as the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Bobbitt, as a young boy growing up in Maryland just outside Washington, DC, was exposed to the arts, took a strong interest, and built a career around music, dance, and theater. Now, as the state’s top arts official, he hopes to foster an environment in Massachusetts that would allow similar experiences for young people across the state.
Joining The Codcast at the end of his first week on the job, the 48-year-old Bobbitt introduced himself professionally and personally. He said he is the father of an adopted son from Vietnam who is now 19 and studying marine biology at the University of Florida. He is also a careful eater. “I only eat vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and grains. Nothing processed, no sugar, no dairy, and no meat,” he said.
His first performance as an artist came in first grade, when he played Hansel in the play “Hansel and Gretel.” At age 8 he saw the play “Porgy and Bess” and realized white people weren’t the only ones capable of appearing on stage. At about the same time, he was invited into the band room at his school and invited to pick one of the instruments.
“The trumpet was the shiniest and prettiest to me,” he said of a choice that launched him on an adventure that led to a fellowship with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, and later a music scholarship to Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. He went on to study classical ballet, participate in musical theater, and write plays. He served as the artistic director of Adventure Theatre-MTC, a children’s theater in Washington, DC, for 12 years, and in August 2019 took the same post at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown.
“I’ve always enjoyed all the work I’ve done as an artist. But part of me was always intrigued by the process,” he said. “I always remember being in play practice or rehearsal, and being very intrigued by watching all the people in the room create this beautiful thing. You had the playwright, the director, the music director, the choreographer, and all these artists, and together everyone is using their imagination to imagine what the final product would be like. And that intrigued me so much.”
Over the last 15 years, Bobbitt said he has learned to be an arts leader, gaining an understanding of fundraising, management, culture, finances, and how government and the arts can work together. He said all those experiences at individual arts organizations have prepared him for his current job at the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
“Now I get to do that for a whole state of arts and cultural organizations and artists,” he said.
With COVID-19, It may be the worst of times for arts organizations, but Bobbitt said arts and culture are needed now more than ever – for dealing with the fallout from the disease as well as the inequalities and racism it has revealed. “In many ways, it’s a good time to be coming to this,” he said. “Arts and culture is inherently a social justice medium.”
He steps into an environment on Beacon Hill that has rarely viewed the arts as a top state priority. Asked if the agency’s $18 million budget is adequate, he politely fends off the question but makes clear lawmakers, once he gets his bearings on Beacon Hill, are going to be hearing a lot from him.
“I hope they’re looking forward to seeing me in their offices quite a bit,” he said.