Arts + Policy

Arts + Policy


Senate proposal pares back film tax credit

Senate proposal pares back film tax credit

Backs more spending in Mass., lower subsidies for stars

THE SENATE BUDGET committee is proposing major changes to the film tax credit, setting the stage for a major clash with the House over the lucrative incentives the state offers to film and television production companies to shoot in Massachusetts.

The House voted 160-0 in April to keep the existing film tax credit in place and do away with a sunset provision that would have caused the tax credit to expire on January 1, 2023.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee, in its budget filing on Tuesday, extended the sunset provision by four years to January 1, 2027, but also modified the tax credit to encourage more spending in Massachusetts and lower subsidies for high-priced actors and directors from out of state.

“Too much of the money, the tax credits and the benefits of the tax credits, goes to out-of–state individuals and out-of-state companies.,” said Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “We want to see more of the benefits be realized by Massachusetts residents and Massachusetts companies.”

The Massachusetts film tax credit offers producers of films, TV shows, and commercials a tax credit equal to 25 percent of whatever they spend in Massachusetts. The tax credit is one of the most generous in the United States, costing the state between $56 million and $80 million a year. The tax credit has attracted a large number of productions to the state, generated a significant number of jobs, and prompted private investors to build a film studio in Devens.

But a Tax Expenditure Review Commission issued a report in March raising concerns about the value of the film tax credit. “We are between ‘somewhat’ and ‘strongly’ disagreeing that it justifies its fiscal cost,” said the commission’s report. “While the film credit provides some immediate stimulus, it does not contribute to the long run growth of the state’s economy. Even though we are able to measure in detail all of the economic benefits of this credit, it still results in a cost of $100,000 per job created. We conclude that this is not the best use of the state’s money.”

The Senate budget proposal would leave the key elements of the tax credit in place, but it would require film and TV productions to either spend 75 percent of their budget or 75 percent of their filming days in Massachusetts – an increase from 50 percent in the existing law. The Senate proposal would also cap at $1 million how much of an individual’s salary would qualify for the tax credit, a provision aimed at big-name actors and directors from out of state.

The current film tax credit law allows recipients of the credits to convert them into cash by selling them back to the state at 90 percent of their value or selling them to companies with a large tax liability in Massachusetts at a negotiated price, presumably above 90 percent of the value. Rodrigues said the Senate proposal would discontinue the ability of film tax credit recipients to sell them to other taxpayers.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the Department of Revenue that transferable tax credits are an administrative nightmare, because sometimes they’re transferred more than once,” Rodrigues said.

Sen. Michael Rodrigues, the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is proposing a paring back of the state’s film tax credit. (State House News file photo by Sam Doran)

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimated the changes proposed by Rodrigues would reduce the tab for the film tax credit by $10 to $15 million a year.

The Massachusetts Production Coalition, which represents unions, businesses, and artists who support the film tax credit, issued a statement saying the Senate’s approach would effectively kill the film and television industry in Massachusetts.

“This would lead to the elimination of thousands of local jobs and drive tens of millions of dollars of economic benefit out of Massachusetts,” the statement said. “Extending the sunset date by just four years does not provide the long-term certainty that local businesses need to invest now in infrastructure and equipment. A four-year extension would merely leave the industry in an extended period of limbo with limited opportunities for growth that creates more jobs.”

House Speaker Ron Mariano, who has emerged as the film tax credit’s biggest champion on Beacon Hill, had no comment on the Senate bill. The speaker’s vocal support for the tax credit means it will likely be a central focus of budget negotiations between the House and Senate, as both branches bargain for what’s important to their chambers.

Rodrigues has long been skeptical of the film tax credit’s bang for the buck, and has previously pushed some of the measures he included in the budget on Tuesday. His proposal, however, scales back but does not eliminate the film tax credit.

“We recognize that there is a benefit to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by having a robust film and movie industry in Massachusetts,” Rodrigues said.  “We have to make sure that that return on investment is maximized for those paying the bills, the taxpayers of the Commonwealth.”

Arts programming in Boston schools linked to attendance, engagement gains 

Arts programming in Boston schools linked to attendance, engagement gains 

Study finding follows decade-long effort to boost arts in district

A NEW STUDY says an effort to increase arts programming in the Boston Public Schools has helped boost student attendance and promote student and parent engagement with schools, outcomes that arts supporters say provide added rationale for maintaining or enhancing the role of arts in the schools. 

For students receiving arts programming, the study found that school attendance increased by roughly one-third of a day over the course of the school year compared with students not in art courses. The gains were greater for students with individualized education plans (IEPs) and those who had previously been chronically absent, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days. For students with IEPs, arts programming was linked with increased attendance of 0.7 days, while for those with a history of chronic absenteeism the gain was about 1.1 days per year. 

The study, which was released Monday morning, also found that teachers observed greater student and parent engagement at schools with arts programming.

“It really reinforced what we have learned from school leaders and teachers and parents about why arts matter,” said Marinell Rousmaniere, president and CEO of EdVestors, which commissioned the study with support from The Barr Foundation. “To have quantitative data to back the qualitative is a really important piece in making the case for arts education.”

Boston Public Schools students perform on Boston Common at 2018 annual citywide Arts Festival. (Photo by Elliot Haney)

There has always been a strong argument for “art for art’s sake.” All the intangible, hard-to-quantify ways that we’re enriched by creative pursuits have been a hallmark of human experience. But when it comes to the curriculum of US schools, that idea seems to have taken a backseat to a focus on core academic subjects or landed arts programming on the chopping block when schools were faced with funding constraints. 

According to a 2011 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, after a consistent increase in arts programming in US schools through most of the 20th century, arts education began to experience a steady decline starting in the mid-1970s. That report found that there were big racial disparities in the decreases in arts education, with white children experiencing relatively insignificant decreases but Black and Hispanic children experiencing a drop of 40 to 50 percent in arts offerings from that time until 2008. 

It was around that time, in 2009, that the nonprofit education organization EdVestors began working with the Boston Public Schools on a multiyear initiative to expand arts offerings in the district schools. Eleven years later, the new report the group is releasing represents one of the largest studies ever carried out of the impact of arts education in public schools. 

While the attendance gains were quite modest, the researchers say student absenteeism has been a problem on which it has been difficult to make huge gains, even with the most targeted interventions. 

“A third of a day doesn’t sound like a lot. But when we dive into education interventions that are designed to have any sort of impact on attendance, this is actually pretty comparable to some of the interventions touted as having impact on attendance,” said Daniel Bowen, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University and coauthor of the study. 

Bowen carried out the study with Brian Kisida, an assistant professor in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, by looking at arts programming in Boston  over 11 years, starting in the 2008-09 school year. They gathered data on more than 600,000 “student observations,” with an individual student’s experience with arts programming over the course of a school year constituting one observation. 

The study found no consistent connection between arts programming and gains in core academic topics, although there were very small gains in math and English for the subset of students in middle school. 

The study also found a small increase in the rate of student suspensions connected with enrollment in arts courses. “The small increases in suspension rates are puzzling, as we are not aware of any prior research that has found that arts education experiences contribute to more disciplinary infractions,” the authors write. Indeed, they say the one prior study that tried to assess a causal relationship between the two variables found that arts programming decreased student discipline incidents. “That’s something we’re still investigating,” Kisida said of the suspension finding. One possible explanation he said, was that “a lot of times being involved in the arts actually means being at school more, so you have potentially more time to get in trouble when you’re staying after to be in the school play.” 

The study did not identify specific ways that offering arts courses was tied to greater student and parent engagement, but EdVestors officials say their conversations with school leaders suggest some obvious ways that arts programming might draw families in. 

“We’ve heard principals saying they have parent-teacher conferences planned around arts performances because you’re more likely to get parents prioritizing taking the time to come and meet teachers,” said Ruth Mercado-Zizzo, vice president for programs and equity at EdVestors. “There’s an added incentive for parents to come.”

Kisida said arts educators and supporters of arts programming in schools have been in a “defensive stance” in recent years, feeling a need to “justify their existence” in the face of a heightened focus on student achievement scores and district and state systems that hold schools accountable for student test results. 

He said that has prompted research looking for links between arts programming and academic gains. Kisida said a lot of that research, however, has been methodologically weak, unable to distinguish between any actual impact of arts programming and other characteristics of schools or districts with rich arts offerings than might differ from those without such programs. 

The Boston study was able to overcome those shortcomings by essentially comparing the same students within a district to themselves over the course of the 11 years, depending on whether they did or didn’t have arts courses in a particular school year. Kisida said the study also “set more realistic expectations of what the benefits of arts are.”  

He said the combined finding of modest improvement in attendance and the perception by teachers of greater student and parent engagement suggest overall benefits of arts education that go beyond those specific measures. 

“A lot of the things that we measure in social science are proxies for a bundle of other things,” Kisida said. “So to see that attendance goes up doesn’t just tell me there are X number of more hours a student is in school. It tells me there’s an effect on the student’s mindset, they’re more engaged, they’re happier there. There are other things going on that are unmeasured, and whatever attendance is a proxy for is probably a more important thing.” 

Those unmeasured things, say the researchers and EdVestors leaders, may be more important than ever as schools take on the challenge of reconnecting with students who may have gone a full year without being in school building or in face-to-face interactions with classmates or teachers. 

“We’ve been hearing a lot from educators and students about how difficult it’s been over the last year to engage and be enthusiastic about school and learning,” said Mercado-Zizzo. “What I think this study really demonstrated even pre-pandemic is that the arts are an incredible motivator to increase engagement and for students to want to be in school and feel they can be heard and for them to be able to express themselves in ways they can’t do in other content areas.” 

The 11-year arts initiative in the Boston schools has led to a huge jump in arts staffing as well as the development of partnerships between schools and outside arts organizations. The district has added the equivalent of 130 new full-time arts educators since 2009, bringing the total number of arts instructors in the system to over 300. 

Boston schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the new study affirms the value of arts in the curriculum. “This research provides evidence for what we already know: arts education engages students, builds community, expresses our shared humanity and experience, and contributes to joyful learning environments,” Cassellius said in a statement. “Building on the strength of the many BPS educators and partners that provide quality arts learning opportunities, Boston Public Schools will continue to prioritize the arts as we promote our students’ social and emotional health to fully recover from this pandemic and reimagine learning for our young people.”

House follows Mariano’s lead on film tax credit

House follows Mariano’s lead on film tax credit

Budget amendment does away with sunset provision

THE HOUSE, getting in line behind a high priority of Speaker Ron Mariano, unanimously passed a budget amendment on Monday that would do away with the planned sunset of the film tax credit program at the end of next year.

The vote was 160-0, with no one in the chamber dissenting despite a recent report by the state Tax Expenditure Commission said the film tax credit “is not the best use of the state’s money.” The commission, which included two members of the House, said the film tax credit creates jobs and economic activity, but at an incredibly high cost of $100,000 per job.

Rep. Tackey Chan of Quincy, the sponsor of the amendment, said in an interview that he had filed the proposal 10 times over the past few years and never succeeded in bringing it to the House floor.

The key difference on Monday was Mariano, who has made removal of the sunset provision a top priority. In a statement, Mariano said the vote sends “a clear message to the film industry that we are open for long-term commitments and the economic benefits they bring to Massachusetts. By making the film tax credit permanent, Massachusetts will become a true competitor and an attractive location as the film industry continues to grow and evolve. The level of impact and the amount of benefits the film tax credit brings to Massachusetts is immeasurable, creating local jobs and boosting overall economic activity in our cities and towns.”

Chan said the pandemic has highlighted the value of the film tax credit. He said the pandemic has pared back economic activity across the state and highlighted how much the film tax credit is contributing to the economy. As an example, he said, hotel occupancy has fallen from 68 percent to 38 percent during the pandemic, but film productions have helped the hospitality industry weather the storm.

Chan said the film Don’t Look Up led to the booking of more than 15,000 hotel room nights from November 2020 to February 2021. He rattled off a number of other films and television series that have added thousands of hotel room nights in communities across the state during a period when the hospitality industry has been devastated by COVID.

“This is now part of pandemic recovery,” Chan said of the need to remove the film tax credit sunset provision.

Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante of Gloucester, who also spoke in favor of the amendment, said the economic analysis developed by the Department of Revenue for the state commission failed to take into account the economic ripple effect of film and TV productions on local businesses and even local governments. She mentioned spending at local hardware stores, the restoration by films and TV shows of homes and public buildings, and even police details.

“None of this shows up in the DOR report,” she said.

The film tax credit offers those shooting commercials, TV shows, and movies in Massachusetts a tax credit equal to 25 percent of whatever is spent in the state. The tax credit, which costs the state between $56 million and $80 million a year, is particularly attractive because it can be converted into cash by selling it to those with high Massachusetts tax liabilities.

In the section of its report dealing with the film tax credit, the Tax Expenditure Commission indicated it was “between ‘somewhat’ and ‘strongly’ disagreeing that [the film tax credit] justifies its fiscal cost. While the film credit provides some immediate stimulus, it does not contribute to the long run growth of the state’s economy. Even though we are able to measure in detail all of the economic benefits of this credit, it still results in a cost of $100,000 per job created. We conclude that this is not the best use of the state’s money.”

Chan said he expects members of the film and TV production community to begin an all-out lobbying effort to convince members of the Senate to join the House in eliminating the film tax credit sunset provision. Some Senate leaders have indicated an interest in modifying the film tax credit to reduce its cost.

Letters signed by local business owners and the Massachusetts Production Coalition extolling the benefits of the film tax credit were circulated to House members in advance of Monday’s vote and that type of lobbying pressure is expected to intensify in the Senate.

“Many of our businesses are ready to make major investments in new infrastructure, equipment, workers, and capacity to grow the local film and television industry,” said the letter from local business owners. “But the scheduled end of the production incentive puts these substantial investments at risk. Businesses will not invest in an industry that’s scheduled to disappear. At a time when Massachusetts needs economic stimulus the most, the uncertainty created by the rapidly approaching sunset of the production incentive is preventing job-increasing investments now. “

The Massachusetts Production Coalition has said eliminating the sunset provision has majority support in the Senate, with 23 of 40 senators cosponsoring the legislation. The Senate list of cosponsors includes all three Republicans – Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth, and Ryan Fattman of Sutton – and three members of the Senate’s top leadership– Harriette Chandler of Worcester, Sal DiDomenico of Everett, and Michael Rush of West Roxbury.

Tax breaks not on House budget chief’s radar

Tax breaks not on House budget chief’s radar

Michlewitz served on tax expenditure commission

THE HOUSE’S TOP budget official said his spending plan for fiscal 2022 doesn’t address outdated or ineffective tax breaks highlighted in a recent commission report and he doesn’t plan to push for separate legislation to deal with them.

Rep. Aaron Michlewitz of Boston, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, served on the Massachusetts Tax Expenditure Review Commission, which issued a report in March rating 26 tax breaks. Some, like the life science credit, received high marks, but others, including the film tax credit and an exemption for alcoholic beverages from the state sales tax, were flagged for their relatively low benefits and high cost.

The ratings, covering tax breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually, were endorsed unanimously by the commission.

The Tax Expenditure Review Commission was created because tax breaks typically get approved but then never reviewed to see if they actually work. Sen. Adam Hinds of Pittsfield, a member of the commission, said he wants to use the commission’s reviews of the more than 200 tax breaks on the books as a guide for eliminating, scaling back, or modifying the measures.

Michlewitz on Wednesday showed little interest in tackling tax breaks, while House Speaker Ron Mariano, who joined him at a press conference to unveil the House budget, is aggressively pushing for an extension of the film tax credit, which is currently set to expire at the end of next year.

The film tax credit reimburses movie and TV productions for 25 percent of whatever they spend in the state. Mariano says the film tax credit has worked extremely well in attracting films and TV shows to Massachusetts, generating lots of jobs in the process. The Tax Expenditure Commission said the film tax credit has generated a considerable number of jobs but at a very high cost — $100,000 per job.

The House budget proposal did not include any provisions to eliminate the current sunset on the film tax credit.

The politics of tax breaks could get interesting as the legislative session progresses. The film tax credit is likely to become a bargaining chip in negotiations between the House and Senate over tax breaks or possibly other issues.

Public art can help drive our post-pandemic renewal

Public art can help drive our post-pandemic renewal

Shared cultural displays are 'expressive and democratic' at their core

A YEAR INTO the global pandemic and the once-familiar roar of people, cars, and activity in Boston is still a memory. The feeling of life in suspension persists.

Yet, glimmers of hope sparkle as vaccines roll out, days lengthen, and workers return. Now is the time to imagine how we safely and equitably reopen Boston so that all who call this place home can actively reimagine the experiences and spaces that create a strong, connected city.

Despite a year of significant personal and economic losses, we ingeniously piloted ways people and traffic can hold equal space, digitized the most intimate experiences, and fell in love with our shared parks and waterways. We faced, and continue to grapple with, the hard truths about our prejudices and biases. We recognize that to be an open, inclusive city, we must dismantle historical barriers like transit divestment and redlining that block equitable progress.

We’ve also had time to reflect and reimagine what it will be like to connect, socialize, gather, and feel communal inspiration again. Coming together in joy and spontaneous interactions is what makes us human. It’s what creates a public.

According to “Culture and Community in A Time of Crisis,” a July 2020 Culture Track survey of 120,000 people from 50 states, we miss being with others and having fun. Yes, 81 percent of us have pursued creative outlets in quarantine, from cooking to knitting to singing, painting, drawing, and writing. About 53 percent of survey respondents tuned into digital cultural activities and enjoyed the broad access it affords. But something is still lacking: human connection.

“Ambrosia” at the Prudential Center. “Art created in community in the public realm is one of the surest ways to open up Boston to a more equitable and vibrant future,” said Kate Gilbert, executive director of Now + There.

The same study found respondents willing to come back into public life when and if it feels safe. “We need places and ways to gather and still have joy and pleasure in our lives,” the report said. “Places, even if virtual, to comfort one another and feel human, humane, and normal.”

Enter public art, a cultural realm that is free, easy to access, welcoming to all, and, at its best, a rallying point to bring together daring voices, a variety of life experiences, and a diversity of people to participate in the broad and loud chorus of humanity. It’s expressive and democratic at its core.

Films, books, plays, paintings, murals, sculptures, and other artistic experiences give us windows into others’ lives. How else do we learn about and empathize with each other’s experiences in this pandemic? Public art can be an outlet, a place for us to wrestle and reconcile feelings about controversial issues and painful times. By experiencing it together, masked-face to masked-face, we create agency. We share an invitation to greater openness and a call for change.

Art in our public realm also offers beauty, inspiration, and aesthetic uplift. It gives our cities more vibrant and humane corners and byways. Boston has an opportunity right now to create more of these pockets of culture and intrigue, magnets for gathering people of all ages, abilities, races, and backgrounds safely. We deserve more experiences like these that open spaces, advance artists’ careers, cultivate joy city-wide, challenge our biases, and create community-wide conversations.

We are at a collective crossroads. The pandemic’s end seems within sight. We have new leaders that want to address the inequities and injustices, and we have artists ready to amplify messages of inclusivity. Art created in community in the public realm is one of the surest ways to open up Boston to a more equitable and vibrant future.

Kate Gilbert is the executive director of Now + There, a Boston-based nonprofit bringing temporary and site-specific public art into all of the city’s neighborhoods. Visit www.nowandthere.org for information about current programs and installations, including “Ambrosia” at Prudential Center and “To Each Era, Its Art. To Art, Its Freedom” in Central Wharf Park in Boston.

 

Film tax credit backers say they have the votes

Film tax credit backers say they have the votes

Dispute findings of tax expenditure commission

SUPPORTERS OF THE state’s film tax credit, which came under fire this week from a commission examining Massachusetts tax breaks, say they have the votes to pass legislation that would make the tax credit permanent.

The credit, which under current law is scheduled to sunset on January 1, 2023, provides a tax credit equal to 25 percent of whatever is spent in Massachusetts on commercials, TV series, and movies. Since many Hollywood studios don’t have tax exposure in Massachusetts, the credit is structured in a way that allows it to be sold to taxpayers that do have liabilities.

The Tax Expenditure Revenue Commission released its initial report this week, raising concerns about the efficacy of a number of tax breaks, including the film tax credit. The report said the film tax credit has succeeded in generating jobs in Massachusetts but at an extraordinarily high cost – between $56 million and $80 million a year, or an average of about $100,000 per position.

“We conclude that this is not the best use of the state’s money,” the commission said in its report.

Despite the commission’s misgivings, the film tax credit appears to have strong support in the Legislature. The Massachusetts Production Coalition, which represents film and TV workers and businesses in the state, said legislation it is backing that would eliminate the sunset has majority support in both branches of the Legislature – 102 members of the House and 23 in the Senate are cosponsors.

The Senate list of cosponsors includes all three Republicans – Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth, and Ryan Fattman of Sutton – and three members of the Senate’s top leadership– Harriette Chandler of Worcester, Sal DiDomenico of Everett, and Michael Rush of West Roxbury.

In a statement, the Massachusetts Production Coalition said the state commission relied on “flawed 5-year-old state data” assembled by the Department of Revenue. The commission report relies on actual data through 2016 and some projections through the current year. It also relies on an analysis of the data provided by the Department of Revenue.

The Massachusetts Production Coalition relies on some of the data generated by the Department of Revenue, but also on a report it paid for that used inside data from Warner Bros. on the filming in Massachusetts of the Castle Rockseries, which ran on the Hulu streaming site.

That report found that the production spent $58 million on Castle Rock’s first season and received a tax credit from Massachusetts worth $14.6 million. Of the $58 million, the report said, $30 million went to addresses inside Massachusetts and $28 million to addresses outside the state. But the report said a closer look at the $28 million indicated only $16.5 ended up being spent outside the state. The remaining $11.5 million was spent inside the state, according to the report, which significantly increased the economic impact inside Massachusetts.

“Right now, the demand for studio and soundstage space in Massachusetts is exceeding supply, and many of our local businesses are ready to make major investments in new infrastructure, equipment, and capacity to grow the local film industry,” the coalition said in its statement. “That’s why majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature support legislation to remove the film production incentive’s expiration date in order to protect and grow the jobs and economic benefits it creates.”

Meet Michael Bobbitt, state’s new arts leader

Meet Michael Bobbitt, state’s new arts leader

‘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.

There are many Amanda Gormans out there

There are many Amanda Gormans out there

Unique and powerful voices are all around us

RIGHT NOW, poetry has our attention.

On January 20, Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in US history, performed her breathtaking poem The Hill We Climb in front of 40 million viewers. The power and sublime beauty of her words, the grace of her poetic hand gestures, and the brilliance with which she captured this moment in history inspired audiences around the world. It was a piece of writing that at once held the trauma of our past, the grief of our present, and the hopes for our future.

That evening, when Amanda Gorman went on CNN’s 360°, news anchor Anderson Cooper said to her, “It is just so thrilling to see such a bright talent burst like a supernova.”

As executive director of 826 Boston, a youth writing and publishing organization based in Roxbury that is part of the largest youth writing network in the country, it has been a gift to suddenly find poetry on the evening news, late-night talk shows, and even at the Superbowl. Amanda Gorman, who is a champion of youth voice and leadership and is on the board of 826 National, has inspired a nation to embrace the written word.

And yet, while the widespread emergence of Amanda’s extraordinary talent is cause for celebration and has skyrocketed her to celebrity status, it would be a disservice to lose sight of the abundance of talented young poets right here in our own communities. Gorman was 16 years old when she became the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles. There are unique and powerful voices all around us, with important stories to tell, ready to blaze their own paths forward.

Alondra Bobadilla is just one example. She’s a Hyde Park resident, and a senior at Fenway High School. In January 2020, she was selected as Boston’s first youth poet laureate. From her poem Tomorrow: “It is time to ask little girls and little boys what they want to do, not what they want to be. For the title is weightless, but the work is the fruit of good teaching rooted in intention and loving kindness.”

Alondra joins the ranks of youth poet laureates in 40 other cities across the country.

The talent in our city overflows at youth spoken word events and festivals like Wicked Loud (formerly Louder Than A Bomb; a MassLEAP event), and in 826 Boston publications that feature collaborations with outstanding teachers in the Boston Public Schools. The creativity, wit, and beauty that pulses through the writing of these young authors frequently leaves audiences awestruck.

Alondra was chosen from a group of 10 semi-finalists, including Tariq Charles and Eliza Carpenter from Dorchester, and Asiyah Herrera from Roxbury—three students who will be published in How We May Appear, 826 Boston’s city-wide anthology of poems and essays featuring a foreword by Amanda Gorman (release date April 2021).

In the collection, Asiyah, who is the 826 youth literary advisory board team leader, writes:

“Mi casa is breathed to life by a thousand songs,

A thousand ancestors

A Mosaic of mimicry,

Mi casa cantas debajo del luna llena,

She is full of stories,

Intricate, detailed, like handiwork of our quilts.”

In her foreword to introduce the book, Gorman responds to Asiyah’s piece, and to the anthology as a whole: “Here, words are understood as mosaic, quilt, as root, as instruments of connection and humanity. Reading the collection from my sunlit apartment in Los Angeles, it is hard not to be struck with the vision that these authors present: a vibrant and youthful Boston, with its tongue of many languages, and heart of many songs.”

Amanda Gorman has left us with an invitation to listen, and to support the young poets and writers who share their vision with us. Go to their readings. Support their work. Snap your fingers in appreciation.

A supernova is a rare stellar explosion. While Amanda Gorman’s bright light has captured a nation’s attention, may it also build an awareness that this is a time for poetry to continue to inspire us, to move us, and to help us understand the moment. May it be a cultural awakening in which we recognize that young artists of color are at the center of it, and that their voices have been loud and clear for a long time. Now that we’re paying attention, we need to keep listening.

Jessica Drench is the executive director of 826 Boston, a youth writing and publishing nonprofit organization based in Roxbury. You can read more young voices on their website’s gallery of student work at 826boston.org.

As BSO, Boch Center struggle, fundraising takes off

As BSO, Boch Center struggle, fundraising takes off

Local cultural institutions await rollout of $15b in grants

TWO OF BOSTON’S leading cultural institutions had their best fundraising years ever last year as patrons rushed to help fill a void created by COVID-19.

“We’ve raised more money now than when we were open,” said Josiah Spaulding, the president and CEO of the Boch Center, which has been shut down since March 12. “The public responded. They’ve said you’re important. You’re someone we want to get back.”

Mark Volpe, the president and CEO of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, said his institution lost $53 million in ticket sales because of COVID closures, but fundraising reached its highest level ever and virtual performances have actually extended the organization’s reach. Volpe said the BSO in a typical year would reach an audience of 1.2 million, but the orchestra’s virtual audience is close to 20 million.

“The irony is we’re reaching more people than we’ve ever reached, but the business model doesn’t work,” Volpe said.

Spaulding and Volpe on Wednesday joined Mark Kerwin, the chief financial officer of the Museum of Fine Arts; Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston’s chief of arts and culture; and Melissa Sampson McMorrow, the co-chair of the nonprofit and social impact group at the Nutter law firm for a Zoom panel discussion hosted by Bill Kennedy, the chair of public policy at Nutter.

All of the institutions slashed staff and cut expenses to stay afloat and are now waiting to see if a $15 billion federal relief package for arts and cultural venues that was signed into law in December will yield some badly needed financial aid.

Spaulding said the relief a package grew out of a first-of-its kind effort by arts and cultural institutions across the country to make their collective case for help in Washington. Much to the industry’s surprise, the law passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate and was signed into law by former president Donald Trump.

Spaulding said the law allows institutions that lost 90 percent of their earned income to apply for grants equal to 45 percent of their 2019 gross income, up to a maximum of $10 million. Spaulding said the Boch Center and the BSO would both qualify, but he said many details are still being worked out by the Small Business Administration, which is overseeing the disbursement.

Volpe said the BSO was too big of an institution to qualify for a Payroll Protection Program loan, so the new grant program is the first federal aid his institution can apply for.

“I suspect it’s going to be hyper-competitive,” he said. “I’d be shocked with the amount of need across the country whether there’s going to be $10 million for very many institutions. The politics of disbursement and geographic equity will kick in.”

When will the institutions be back?

Volpe said he is running the numbers now on whether the symphony can make a go of it at Tanglewood this summer by concentrating most performances at its outdoor venue there. He said the hope is that the symphony can return to performances at Symphony Hall this fall.

Spaulding said he cannot reopen at reduced capacity because he needs to fill 80 to 85 percent of the seats to break even. So he is not sure when he can reopen.

Kerwin said the Museum of Fine Arts, which closed early on in the pandemic, reopened, and then closed again in December, is now planning to reopen February 3 at 25 percent of its normal capacity. He said the museum is looking to extend Monet and Basquiat Hip-Hop Generation exhibits through at least June.

The intersection of race, COVID-19, and the arts 

The intersection of race, COVID-19, and the arts 

BAMS Fest founder Catherine Morris sees peril – and opportunity – in the moment  

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has had a disproportionate impact on the black community, at the same time as a national reckoning on race relations called attention to societal ills stemming from systemic racism. The economic displacement caused by COVID-19 has also particularly hurt artists, who are often part of the gig economy. 

What does this unique moment mean for the black arts community? CommonWealth talked about the pandemic, arts, and racism with Catherine Morris, the founder and executive director of Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Fest. BAMS is a nonprofit that aims to break down racial and social barriers to arts, music, and culture for communities and artists of color across Greater Boston. It produces performances and public programs curated from a black perspective. Its trademark is an annual summer music festival, first held in 2018.  

Morris, a Boston native who lives on the South Shore, started BAMS Fest in May 2015, as a graduate student in the business school at Simmons University. 

What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation with Morris.  

 

COMMONWEALTH: The black community has been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. How has that impact been felt among black artists?  

CATHERINE MORRIS: The biggest thing is that they don’t have any spaces to create. The artists we work with are heavily dependent on being in their laboratory or their zone of creation and being able to go to those spaces to spark creation and imagination. They’re denied that because of COVID. Even if venues or spaces are open, there’s many more restrictions that impact their ability to go to those spaces.  

Events we’re doing, everyone has to get tested no matter whatA lot of artists don’t have access to free COVID testing sites. They’re paying for it in an economy where they’re 1099 [independent contractor] workers and they’re not getting any income. Trying to survive this has been really hard, and I think for black artists particularly they’re trying to navigate in virtual spaces. If not everyone has the technical resources to do that, they’re going to be left in the dark in ways I think are really going to hurt our whole society but really our economy. Because our city, our state relies on the creative economy, relies on the arts and culture sector to keep it vibrant and enhance quality of life. And I suspect the majority of people who keep that economy alive are black and brown people.  

CW: Does the pandemic change the content of art that’s being produced, or just the format? 

MORRIS: The art…is stronger than ever. The way the artists reach the masses, the format is what has changed. Music now is enjoyed by being on a screen. And it takes away from the human connection, the energy, the flow, the being in a roomful of strangers. It’s not the same with a screen. You can’t go up to the stage. It’s very transactional, it’s not transformative.  

The upswing is artists get to be really creative about how they want to reach a broader audience because everyone is forced to be at home. In addition to artists building their home bases, now they can go global if they want to. Versus the time, money, and energy to go on tour or be accepted in a cohort, fellowship or program, you can literally rewrite the narrative yourself in times of COVID through a virtual platform.  

CW: How do you create a community around art when you can’t gather? 

MORRIS: One of the things we work hard to do is be authentic in how we show up in times of COVID, whether virtual or not. I think what we’ve done organically is to check in with audiences and artists, either in small batches, one on one, or helping to promote their work, their projects. Just to continue to raise visibility that artists are continuing to create even if we can’t be together. To do that in a consistent way so people don’t lose faith that we will get back to a different normal.  

This idea of creating community is all about information sharing and resource sharing. The more we can find those events or projects happening across the city and beyond, it keeps communities connected and continues to create a sense of belonging and the opportunity – that you can get away from your 9-to-5 or being on a Zoom screen by just listening to the music or doing a do-it-yourself artmaking kit. You’ve just got to know what those things are. We’ve really worked hard to be a resource where we are sharing that information.  

I think more now in virtual sense, we’re allowed to be little more scrappy with our ideas and the audience can forgive us for that because it’s COVID. If it’s a team of artists doing a selfie video, which wasn’t accepted in the past, it’s accepted now. That level of scrappiness allowed for connection. Our communities are looking for that. Be authentic, be yourself, you don’t have to put on a face. If you’re going through a bad time, doing this work is not easy. It really has allowed folks to support and understand us holistically. 

CW: BAMS Fest was created to host a large music festival. Obviously, that’s not happening in 2020. How have you adapted to the pandemic? 

MORRIS: We buckled down and focused on how we should show up differently for black artists and communities of color at large. We spent the first half of the year assembling different brain trusts with external stakeholders to explore our thinking about solutions to problems – our digital footprint and infrastructure, our business model, our programming models and leadership succession planning.  

As a result, we are establishing a new model to support the 400 plus BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of color] artists that we work with. We are inserting ourselves in public forums and conversations across sectors to highlight the important role and need to support the arts and culturecreative economy holistically. We have been able to produce virtual programming to give BIPOC artists the opportunity to still connect with their fans and a broader audience.  

CW: We’re in a moment of national reckoning about race. Are you surprised at the outcry that transpired over the killing of George Floyd? 

MORRIS: Yes, in terms of when I think about the days of Rodney King. It’s almost similar except the technology got better. The fact you had multiple perspectives filming the same thing just amplified this question of, have we moved on, and we haven’t. It’s literally changed the landscape of how we defined race, how we defined racism, how institutions and powerful people have to look at themselves nowadays. And it forced us to think about how we learn new habits and ways of treating people as human being or as a society perpetuate bad behavior that continues to divide us.  

CW: What barriers exist specifically for black artists within the general arts community?  

MORRIS: The biggest thing right now is a lack of access to capital and financial resources. The state only gives a certain percentage of money to support anything arts and culture, then it’s broken down by cities. Boston is completely underfunded compared to Portland or San Francisco or Atlanta. More now than in the last 10 years, there has been more of a focus on supporting black, indigenous and people of color artists, but we’re in a trend at this moment. What’s going to happen when the dust settles? Is that always going to be a priority as it should?  The whole system authentically has to change so that there’s consistency around the financial resources that we need to actually help artists grow their creative practice, stabilize their business, and build connection with their audience.  

Particularly for black artists trying to become an LLC, 501c3, or sole proprietorship, they get denied a lot of access to seed money to start a business because they’re only seen as something that’s supposed to fill a room, not something you should go see and invest in as you’d do with any business. It takes a lot of courage to create from scratch and to do that full time. There needs to be a wholehearted investment in that work as we do with any entrepreneur.  

With COVID, as desperate as people are to get outside and experience art and culture, you need artists to do that work for you, but we’re not investing in them. It’s because of our values and the value we place on arts and culture as so below the belt. It’s not considered high priority as we do with education or sports teams or health care. Arts and culture is just as important as any of those sectors because without it cities wouldn’t be able to survive. We don’t have enough brick and mortar performance spaces. Smaller venues are closing. Ones that are owned and operated by white people, there’s a lot of inherent bias about what kind of black artists and art forms walk through their doors. It tends to be the same artists, so those emerging never get the opportunity to be seen, heard, and valued by audiences.  

CW: Has the growing interest in systemic racism created a new audience for art produced by black individuals?  

MORRIS: I think there were already people who were doing this work, particularly photographers were documenting these things for years. Because there are folks individually and collectively who do not want to be labeled as racist, there are a lot of audiences out there who are now interested in understanding at least the basic things of how we got to this moment. Whether they want to work on themselves as individuals is a different story. At least there’s an acknowledgement that the powerful and privileged actually have to learn about this thing they created, and the decisions they make are going to determine how we’re going to look three, four, five, 10 years from now about this thing of systemic racism.  

CW: What role can artists play in helping the public understand the reality faced by black individuals?  

MORRIS: They have to stand their truth and they have to become more involved beyond their creation. It’s not just creating for the sake of creating. For us as an organization, we started getting to understanding advocacy and policymaking work, something we never would have done years ago. When we started to understand there was a huge fight at the State House about increasing the funding to support the arts and culture ecosystem, I realized that a lot of people who were advocating were not black, they were white, older women.  

Part of it is artists just don’t know what they don’t know, so [what’s important is] sharing information about what’s happening at the State House, with your city councilors, here are your Main Street offices in neighborhoods doing things to get more access to spaces, here are how restaurants try to incorporate artists. A lot of artists are not thinking that way. They’re here to create. To build legacy, to build movements, you have to be informed, educate yourself about things beyond the scope of work you do.  

The other thing we’re working on is creating a virtual space where there are hard conversations happening that address commonalities between artists and audiences of color. Artists go through just as much as any regular person, the only difference is that artist took a leap of faith to stand on their creativity to sustain them, versus the majority of us who work 9 to 5. They go through the same issues everyone else does in terms of satisfying human basic needs, paying their bills. It’s just they express their lived experiences through the art form we can all identify with.  

CW: Does racism and societal recognition of systemic racism have an impact on the art being produced in the black community?  

MORRIS: I think holistically what we have heard is at the end of the day there are so many stories that are not being told, and now’s the moment we have to tell them in very bold and ambitious ways that are loud and clear, that signal to people that something has to change. I think, overall, racism isn’t going away, but the barriers to equity do have to start coming down or moving.