Hey, Beacon Hill, pay attention to the arts

Shortchanged for too long, we need a dedicated funding stream

IN 1973, LED ZEPPELIN played to hordes of adoring fans at the Boston Garden on its blockbuster US tour, just over 80,000 people attended the MFA’s exhibit “Soviet Union: Arts and Crafts in Ancient Times,” and Massachusetts lawmakers established the Special Committee on the Arts to establish a model for arts funding at the local level.

Led Zeppelin and the Soviet Union have long since broken up—the Garden was reduced to rubble, too—but Massachusetts is still trying to figure out the best methods for funding the arts.

From the Berkshires to the Cape and Essex County to neighborhoods throughout Boston and Worcester, the creative sector is a driver of economic impact and workforce talent. In racially and culturally diverse communities, the arts and creativity engender neighborhood stability, community cohesion, and youth development. Through cultural tourism, the creative sector contributes to Massachusetts tourism economy—the third largest industry in the Commonwealth—made possible through public funding streams distributed throughout every community and legislative district.

Yet, as the creative sector’s contributions to the strength and vitality of the Commonwealth continue to grow, the ways in which we fund this critical sector have not innovated.

Once upon a time, the Special Committee on the Arts settled on what seemed a strong long-term plan. The result of its work was the establishment of the Arts Lottery. The lottery was administered by the Massachusetts Arts Lottery Council and municipalities organized their own Local Cultural Councils to distribute funds.

After being rebranded as “Megabucks,” the lottery’s fortunes grew and dollars poured directly into cities and towns, providing direct access to arts and cultural participation for everyone in Massachusetts. The Legislature also introduced a $1,000 minimum allocation for local cultural councils.

But the funding stream ran dry after the Massachusetts Arts Lottery Council merged with the Massachusetts Councils for the Arts and Humanities in 1990 to form the Mass Cultural Council. Amid a recession, state budget cuts trickled down to the Cultural Council, reducing funding for local cultural councils. Community arts organizations around the Commonwealth were forced to dramatically scale back their programming.

While there was some bounce back in the mid-1990s, public arts funding was not prioritized on Beacon Hill until the last five years when artists, arts and cultural organizations, and their allies began organizing and advocating. In 2015, for example, the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s budget increased from $12 million to $14.6 million, its largest in nine years. In 2019, lawmakers boosted the investment to $16 million. By contrast, in 1989, public arts funding stood at $27 million.

Though this renewed investment is welcome and necessary, the creative sector is compromised by public and private funding that does not keep pace with its transformative impact on community safety, health, and economic well-being.

While communities in North Adams, New Bedford, and Salem have incorporated creative place-making strategies to revitalize and reinvent their economies, public funding sources are limited. Groups like Angkor Dance Troupe in Lowell, Enchanted Circle Theatre in Holyoke, and Zumix in East Boston provide creative outlets, leadership development, arts-integrated teaching curriculum, and after-school jobs to young people, but programmatic funding is siloed and hard won. Public art projects in downtown Boston, Worcester, and Lynn change the way we understand our communities as they democratize access to art and creativity in the public realm, but committed funding for public art is scarce.

A dedicated revenue stream to fund the state’s investment in arts and culture can ensure that this vital sector will not again be hobbled by economic downturns or political trends. There are lessons to be learned from cities like Austin, Chicago, or Los Angeles, where small occupancy taxes fund arts programs; or Denver, St. Paul, and San Antonio, where a small percent of sales tax supports hundreds of vibrant creative and cultural venues and organizations. The city of Charlotte, North Carolina, has also studied ways to bolster its arts funding and voters will soon have their say on a quarter-cent sales tax to support the creative economy.

Meet the Author

Emily Ruddock

Executive director, MASSCreative
Meet the Author

Karen Ristuben

Program director, creative county initiative, Essex County Community Foundation
As it did 46 years ago, the Legislature has the opportunity to thoughtfully consider a dedicated revenue stream to support the Commonwealth’s creative sector through two bills currently before the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. House Bill 2943 and Senate Bill 2021 each would authorize a new state commission to examine state funding promoting tourism, arts, and culture and recommend new sources of funding to increase tourism and the promotion of arts, culture, and workforce development. The commission would ensure that Massachusetts’ investment in its creative sector is serving its burgeoning creative economy, on par with other states.

Given the many ways that a thriving creative sector benefits our urban, suburban, and rural areas—including the $2 billion of economic activity it generates annually in Massachusetts—it makes sense to examine ways to bring more support to cultural organizations, artistic communities, and arts education efforts. We hope the Legislature will take this important first step soon.

Emily Ruddock is the executive director of MASSCreative and Karen Ristuben is program director for the creative county initiative of the Essex County Community Foundation.