Arts + Policy

Arts + Policy


Should private colleges open libraries to public?

Should private colleges open libraries to public?

Local schools have different policies, priorities

LOCAL PRIVATE COLLEGES are divided on whether to open or close their libraries to the public.

Harvard University, Northeastern University, and Emerson College don’t allow members of the public to use their libraries, but Boston College, Boston University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University have no problem at all with it.

The contrasting policies reflect differing philosophies about the role of a nonprofit cultural institution. Is their role to serve just students, faculty, and staff, or is the role broader, encompassing the public at large?

Northeastern once allowed the general public to use its library, but no more. Spokeswoman Renata Nyul explains that it’s a matter of volume as to why her institution does not allow the general public to use its library facilities.  The school’s library gets over 2 million visits a year from its students and faculty, she says. “This is a large volume to accommodate and although the public may not be able to use the university library for study space or to check out our books or other materials for example, the Boston Public Library is nearby for the community at large,” Nyul says.

Harvard spokeswoman Anna Burgess similarly notes that the library’s focus is on its own college community, adding that the Harvard libraries provide other opportunities for the general public to take advantage of activities such as public exhibits and film screenings.

Emerson’s website states that due to limited space and resources, the library does not allow the general public to use its facilities.

Harvard, Northeastern and Emerson do allow some researchers to use their libraries under certain circumstances.  At Harvard, they can check items out for a fee of $275 to $750 over a three-month to one-year period.

Boston College, Boston University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University — all private institutions — allow anybody to walk into their libraries and use the facilities, as verified by a reporter’s site visits.  The University of Massachusetts, as a state school, must allow citizens of the Commonwealth to use its library facilities.  The general public cannot check out materials at any of these institutions, however.

“Many of our library spaces, including reading rooms, public computers, stacks, and gallery spaces, are open to visitors,” says MIT spokeswoman Kimberly Allen.

The Boston College library is required to be open to the public, because it is part of the Federal Depository Library Program, which makes government documents available for use by the public, according to spokesman Jack Dunn.

Suffolk University’s website states, “As a private university, we cannot welcome the general public to our very busy (often quite crowded) library.”  But spokesman Greg Gatlin says that statement is incorrect and the public can use the library.

At Tufts, the public use of the library is part of a broader program of community service.  “We value our relationship with the Medford and Somerville communities and frequently make our facilities available to them such as athletic facilities and fields, meeting rooms, and our convocation center for their high school graduations,” says spokesman Patrick Collins.  “The library is no different in that regard.”

Simmons University also allows the general public to use its library facilities.  “We’d be happy to see you,” said a Simmons librarian cheerfully to a caller inquiring about whether the public could use the library.

Couple turns old mill into sprawling arts complex

Couple turns old mill into sprawling arts complex

The struggle behind the scenes at Holyoke’s Gateway City Arts Center

VITEK KRUTA, a professional painter, sculptor, and conservator, originally went looking more than a decade ago for a larger studio space in Holyoke. Instead, he and his life partner, Lori Divine-Hudson, stumbled into something very different.

They came across two rambling buildings with more than an acre of floor space — the factory and adjacent warehouse of the former Judd paper mill – that cost less than the price of a house in the area. Soon after buying it in 2012, they started thinking about what to do with all the extra space. Their initial idea of offering a few art classes evolved into the Gateway City Arts Center, an ambitious venture showcasing just about every imaginable form of art.

Their big dreams were met with big bills not just for renovation but also for pricey upgrades necessary to bring the buildings up to code. The project illustrates the potential as well as the challenge of using art to repurpose old mill buildings and add new life and vitality to struggling towns.

The commercial kitchen at the Gateway City Arts Center. (Photo by Linda Enerson)

Over the past decade, Divine-Hudson and Kruta have thrown both muscle and money into reconstruction of their property. They first focused on reconstructing cavernous rooms of the old factory into two stages and adjoining bars. They then added a café and commercial kitchen that connects the two buildings, a studio and workshop space for visual artists, and coworking spaces for start-ups and entrepreneurs. More recently, they finished off a gallery space. A full-size restaurant opened in November

“We are operating four to five businesses all at once,” said Divine-Hudson. “We’re not just a music venue. We’re not just art classes. We’re not just woodshop or coworking space or a restaurant or a theater.  We’re all those things.”

Kruta likens the project to a giant sandbox. “This is a place where you can go and very affordably have the tools and space you need and have no more excuses not to do anything because they aren’t available,” he said.

As their vision for the property expanded, so did their challenges. They had to find the right mix of attractions to draw crowds large enough to sustain the businesses they had assembled. “It’s a great challenge to get people to Holyoke. It’s a challenge to compete with Northampton,” Divine-Hudson said. “When people think about going out to dinner, they don’t think about coming here yet, but we are hoping they will.”

Other challenges have been even more daunting, such as the nearly crushing financial burden of bringing the old buildings up to code.

“We’ve had trouble making ends meet,” Divine-Hudson said. “We had to basically redo the building, put in a new roof, heating system, some new plumbing, windows, elevator.”

The new elevator, which cost about $200,000, is just one of several pricey upgrades required to bring the building up to code. The roof cost roughly $100,000. Other cost estimates have been prohibitive.  “We would love to turn the top floor into condominiums, but you have to reinforce the building for earthquakes,” she said. The price tag of $500,000 for that job was too high to move forward.

State regulations disproportionately burden developers like Kruta and Divine-Hudson that seek to redevelop buildings in communities with weaker real estate markets, according to Marcos Marrerro, Holyoke’s director of economic planning and development. That’s because the regulations stipulate that when renovation expenses surpass 30 percent of the property’s assessed value, the project is then required to meet more stringent building code requirements.

The assessed value of the two buildings that make up Gateway City Arts is several times lower than comparable properties in Boston. As a result, a significantly lower level of renovation costs trigger more stringent code standards than would have occurred with a comparable project in stronger real estate market.

“Let me be clear, building codes are important,” said Marrero. “Society needs a way to ensure safety and accessibility. These are critical things we all want. But the one-third rule dissuades or makes it hard or even impossible to phase projects in weak real estate markets like Holyoke.”

He says this is true for public as well as private ventures. For example, city halls are frequently in older buildings. “Hypothetically, just putting in new windows could trigger full code requirements,” said Marrerro, requiring renovations so costly that it might dissuade town officials from even making minor improvements to energy efficiency.  

The ceiling of the bistro, as painted by Vitek Kruta. (Photo by Linda Enerson)

Divine-Hudson and Kruta were able to get public support for some of their renovations. A $75,000 state grant helped them build a commercial kitchen that is used as an incubator for new food businesses. The city of Holyoke provided a non-interest bearing loan of $25,000 for window restorations. However, most of the new construction has been privately funded.

The renovation costs have challenged their ability to realize a profit. While some of their businesses are doing well, others haven’t taken off. The coworking space, for example, has office space for 25 start-ups or freelancers, but only four spaces are rented. Divine-Hudson says that that program and several others were hampered by restrictions on advertising until the new, accessible elevator was installed.

“If the state is interested in more of these buildings being repurposed, there needs to be some reflection of that interest in policies that make these projects sustainable,” said Divine-Hudson.

Despite the challenges, the couple has been able to move forward largely because some of their businesses, such as the concert halls and adjoining bars, have been supporting other less profitable businesses.

Those businesses have helped establish Gateway City Arts as a regional performance venue attracting over 50,000 visitors a year with help from two major record labels based in the state. A recent concert of Rubble Bucket, produced by Signature Sounds, drew over 1,500 people. “We’re still recovering from that event,” Kruta quips.

The project has also become an anchor of the city’s economic development efforts in the neighborhood. According to Marrerro, the success of Gateway City Arts has inspired several other developers to repurpose old buildings in the area for commercial or residential projects.

“What Lori and Vitek have done is remarkable,” he says. The city recently built a boardwalk running along the canal on Race Street, encouraging visitors to Gateway City Arts and other developments in the area to walk around and spend time in Holyoke. According to Divine-Hudson, the new restaurant is also designed to encourage people to spend more time in the city rather than come in for an evening concert and leave immediately after it ends.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve done,” says Divine-Hudson. “We’re not sustainable yet, but we’re hopeful that with the changes we’ve made and are making, we can focus on what we do best, which is working with people and art.”

June 11, 2019

Mass. Cultural Council secures gambling funds

Intends to pilot prescription arts programs in Berkshires, Springfield

A correction has been added to this story.

THE LONG-DELAYED closeout spending bill that finally passed on December 15 contained a provision funneling 2 percent of the tax revenue from the state’s two resort casinos into a fund that the Massachusetts Cultural Council hopes will support arts institutions as well as low-income people who can’t afford to patronize them.

The measure is another Beacon Hill victory for the Cultural Council, which has taken a pounding from the Boston Herald for spending its resources on fine dining, travel, and accommodations, but nevertheless saw its annual appropriation go up this year and now has authority to spend the casino revenues without further appropriation by the Legislature required. The fund currently has more than $3 million, and the Cultural Council wants to use at least a portion of the money to pilot a prescription arts program.

Anita Walker, the executive director of the Cultural Council, told the Berkshire Eagle that the holdup on the casino money was due to language issues in the legislation. But the Boston Herald also pushed for more accountability, demanding in an editorial that the Cultural Council’s expenditures from the fund be subject to legislative appropriation. 

“If the Massachusetts Cultural Council, with all its transparency troubles, is allowed to receive an infusion of casino cash, virtually unchecked, it would only encourage irresponsible spending and embolden leadership to operate away from the light of day,” the Herald opined.

Gov. Charlie Baker apparently took up the Herald’s cause earlier this year, but ultimately backed off and signed the closeout spending bill without requiring specific legislative action to dispense the money.

The 2011 gaming law directed that the casino money be used to level the playing field between nonprofit and municipally owned performing arts centers and casinos, both of which compete for touring shows and artists. The new language creates a Cultural and Performing Arts Mitigation Trust Fund, with a quarter of the money going for “the organizational support program of the Massachusetts Cultural Council” and three-fourths to support the nonprofit and municipally owned performing arts centers. Under the new law, only 7 percent of the total assets of the fund can go for administrative and operations expenses in any one year. (A correction was added to this paragraph to make clear that some restrictions on spending remain. The supplemental budget eliminated those restrictions in one section, but restored them with greater detail in another section that CommonWealth missed. We regret the error.)

Staring in January, Walker says she wants to use at least a portion of the money to create two health-related arts pilot programs. One would allow participants in the Massachusetts Health Connector with incomes less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level to receive free or reduced-admission to cultural institutions. The program is patterned after a similar initiative the Cultural Council runs with the Department of Transitional Assistance for EBT cardholders.

The other initiative would allow medical professionals to write prescriptions for cultural experiences at participating arts organizations. “Any time a social prescription is written for a program at one of our cultural organizations, that prescription will be sent to us at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and we will reimburse the organization for the full cost of the work,” Walker told the Berkshire Eagle.

Walker thinks insurance companies will eventually pick up the cost of these art and cultural prescriptions, just as they cover the cost of gym memberships. “Research has already shown that arts and culture participation lowers their cost because it is what public health officials call a protective factor,” Walker said. “It is a protective factor against the issues that lead to depression and anxiety.”

The prescription program will be tested initially in the Berkshires and in Springfield. In the Berkshires, the Macony Pediatric Group of Great Barrington, the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, and a group of local schools and cultural organizations will be working together. The key player in Springfield is the Caring Health Center.

A Berkshire Eagle editorial hailed the effort. “Gambling is accompanied by social ills, but those ills will be tempered if gambling revenue can be used for social benefits,” the paper said.

Say hello to Nubian Square

Say hello to Nubian Square

Mayor predicts panel will OK new name for Dudley Square

THERE’S NO BRONZE traitor astride a horse. No statue whatsoever. In fact, it can be a little tricky to suss out who exactly Dudley Square is named after.

But this era’s moral reckoning with villains from the past will soon shove aside the timeworn geographic honorific memorializing Thomas Dudley, a colonial functionary who was in charge when the Massachusetts Bay Colony officially sanctioned slavery.

Instead, when the Public Improvement Commission votes Thursday, it will almost certainly opt to change the name of Dudley Square to Nubian Square. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is confident that will happen, he said in an interview last week.

“This square will be called Nubian Square,” Walsh said at an event in the Bolling Building. “The voters voted it.”

Changing the name of the square could spur the MBTA to change the name of the major bus station there, too. T policy calls for the names of stations to reflect the names of nearby squares and streets. In the case of Dudley, even once the commission changes the square name to Nubian, Dudley Street will continue to run through the neighborhood.

Renaming streets and squares is hardly new – just try finding Government Center or Downtown Crossing on an old map of the city, let alone the Innovation District. But there is a more recent nationwide trend to do away with names and statues that show undue reverence for racists. Given that, some wonder where the renaming will end.

One of the city’s most well-known buildings, Faneuil Hall, is named after Peter Faneuil, who not only enslaved people, but also invested in the slave trade. An artist had planned to install a slave auction block outside the tourist attraction to better acknowledge Boston’s ties to slavery, but he subsequently withdrew that idea.

Boston and the MBTA recently altered signs so the street running behind home plate at Fenway Park and the nearby commuter rail station are no longer named after Tom Yawkey, the former owner of the Red Sox who was infamous for dragging his feet on hiring black ballplayers until well after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

“What I am hopeful for is that during this process we can perhaps come up with a framework for how we think about name changes,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston. “Given the history of this country and how naming has happened, especially in older cities like Boston, we could have these conversations every day. They could come up very frequently.”

The NAACP Boston branch has no position on whether to change the name of Faneuil Hall, but Sullivan said a discussion about that would be worthwhile. Conversely, Sullivan is fully supportive of renaming the cluster of streets in Roxbury.

Naming a historically black business district in the city after an ancient African kingdom will be a positive step for the community, said Sullivan.

Nubia was a civilization along the Nile River that rivaled Egypt more than two millennia ago, according to National Geographic, but in the modern day, the term Nubian has also taken on a broader definition to describe the whole African diaspora, according to PBS.

Credit for the Dudley Square name change belongs to people such as Sadiki Kambon, who mobilized support in the neighborhood and says young people are already calling the area Nubian Square.

“We felt it was a major contradiction to have our primary commercial shopping district in Roxbury, serving black and brown people primarily, named in honor of a slave-advocating family,” Kambon told state lawmakers earlier this month.

The square is named after Thomas Dudley, who was given the job of deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629, and sailed from England to the New World outpost the following year. Dudley later served four stints as governor, including one that lasted into 1641, when slavery, which already existed in the settlement, was “legally sanctioned,” according to an official history.

Dudley’s son, Joseph Dudley followed in his father’s mold as royal governor of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay and New Hampshire. During that time, the colony passed a racist law banning white people from intercourse with black people. The prescribed punishment for black men and women alike who violated the statute was that they be sold and sent out of the province.

The vote Thursday is the last step along the way to changing the name of Dudley Square. Last month, voters around the city weighed in on a non-binding referendum on the idea. While citywide the name change was not very popular, losing 46-54 percent, it had broad support in the Roxbury neighborhoods around the square, winning two thirds of the vote.

Walsh said the city didn’t have the legal authority to poll voters in only one neighborhood, but he values nearby residents’ perspectives on it more because “it impacted this area.” That vote also gives pols the impetus and the political cover to back the name change.

Boston City Councilor Kim Janey, whose district includes Dudley, supported holding the non-binding referendum, and wants the city to follow through on her constituents’ desires, but she remained officially neutral before the vote.

“We see efforts all across our country to address and confront our racist past and present, whether it’s tearing down monuments or new names for different squares and streets. This is no different,” said Janey, who is the incoming council president, in a statement Wednesday.

Kambon liked the idea of renaming Dudley before he and others had settled on what to call it next. His first proposal was to name it after Meta Warrick Fuller, a black sculptor who died in 1968.

But then others suggested naming it after the freedom fighter Harriett Tubman or other figures from African American history.

“We couldn’t reach consensus,” Kambon said. Finally, the group settled on Nubian Square, because, as Kambon put it, “We’re all Nubian people.”

Like many cities, Boston has a particularly fraught history with racism and racial oppression. It also has a reputation as a staid place that clings to tradition. Renaming a major up-and-coming business district Nubian Square flies in the face of those precedents.

Boston’s black community will receive the national spotlight next summer when the NAACP national convention will be held in the South Boston Seaport. By that time, the biggest square in Roxbury will be Nubian Square, according to Walsh.

NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson didn’t have an opinion about the specific move to rename Dudley, but he is generally supportive of that sort of thing.

“If the residents of that community decide to adopt the name that best reflects their personality or values, I think that’s something to be commended,” Johnson said in a brief interview.

Using art to highlight Eastie climate change

Using art to highlight Eastie climate change

At library, ribbons show potential sea level rise

IT’S AN UNUSUAL SIGHT: Colored ribbons 18-feet-long stretched taut over steel bars, melting into brightly colored duct tape clinging to pavement outside the East Boston Public Library.

The creators of the collaborative art installation, called “RisingEMOTIONS,” say it visualizes the public’s emotional state about flooding due to sea level rise. The project is led by Carolina Aragón, a public artist and assistant professor of landscape architecture & regional planning at UMass Amherst, and Narges Mahyar, assistant professor in the school’s college of information and computer sciences, and their team of students.

The art installation is based on data collected from an online survey filled out by over 150 East Boston residents. The survey, conducted in English and Spanish, tried to tease out feelings about climate change and its impact on East Boston neighborhoods.

The RisingEMOTIONS project visually displays projected flood levels and people’s emotions about climate change. (Photo by Matthew J. Conti)

Respondents could answer with five emotions: concerned, optimistic, angry, sad, and other. They were also asked to leave comments explaining their specific emotion. Each emotion gets a colored band, and the bans are placed 3.7 feet above the ground, the height of the projected 1 percent annual chance flood for 2070 in front of the East Boston Public Library.

The comments of survey participants were hand-drawn on to the bands. “I am afraid my home will flood, and I’ll lose my life’s savings,” said one. “I’m afraid the city will care less because we are a less affluent community,” said another. Others said “I want to know what the government is doing and what steps they are taking to address this” and “I hope we can slow it down.”

The steel bars over which the ribbons are stretched are electrical conduits from hardware stores, The long nylon ribbons were cut by hand from rolls of fabric with X-Acto knives.

Aragón says the project is a continuation of last year’s public art installation in East Boston called AGUAfuturas (future waters,) which demonstrated what flooding levels would look like in a hundred-year-storm if Boston’s climate ready report is correct.

She hopes the installation will encourage residents to take part in local planning efforts by the Boston Planning & Development Agency, the city’s Environment Department, and the work of nonprofits around climate change.

“At the end of the survey, we asked if you want to be more involved or know more, and that’s how we linked people into Climate Ready Boston efforts. We serve as a point of entry so this doesn’t end with the piece of art,” Aragón said.

The gradations of blue in the map show how the 1% annual chance flood extent changes as sea levels rise. The
colors do not indicate depth of flooding. The arrows show the flood entry points and pathways with current sea
levels, 9 inches of sea level rise (2030s), and 36 inches of sea level rise (2070s).(Photo from the 2017 Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown Report)

RisingEMOTIONS was partially funded by a $6,000 Barr Foundation grant to the Friends of the Mary Ellen Welch Greenway, and was developed in collaboration with the Boston Society of Landscape Architects. The project got approval from the seven-member Boston Art Commission, which votes on all public art installations on public land, in November.

“The city as a whole is generally very devoted to addressing the climate change crisis in East Boston, specifically because it’s such a high-risk neighborhood for coastal flooding,” said Kristina Carroll, spokeswoman for the mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture. Carroll added that the commission also funded a 2018 project called “Waters Edge” in the Boston Harbor Shipyard in East Boston.

By the end of the century, between 10 and 20 percent of Charlestown, East Boston, downtown, and South Boston will face flooding at high tide, even without a major weather event, according to the city’s 2019 Climate Action Plan. Projections indicate sea level could rise in East Boston by at least nine inches by 2030 from 2000 levels.

Much of East Boston, as well as Logan International Airport, is built on a filled-in tidal flat that once included five islands. The city’s 2017 East Boston Climate Ready Report proposes ways to deal with seal level rise, such as an East Boston Greenway flood wall, elevated streets and parks, and berms.

The RISING Emotions creators are planning a community gathering to unveil the project on Saturday.

Changing the climate change conversation

Changing the climate change conversation

What cultural organizations can do to educate the public

DATA FROM THE Yale Project on Climate Communication reveals the surprising fact that 70 percent of Americans understand that climate change is occurring, but 64 percent shy away from discussing it. They find the topic too daunting, too polarizing, or perhaps best left to scientists. However, climate change is not just the purview of scientists, academics, and city planning agencies. It’s about our shared values and our shared responsibility for the future of our city and our planet. 

Beyond sparking concerns about the environment and future generations, climate change affects every aspect of our lives, including people, places, and things we care most about. As carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels continues to accumulate in the atmosphere, creating a “heat trapping blanket” that is warming the planet, we are increasingly affected by rising sea levels, severe weather events, and health impacts related to extreme heat. To mitigate these impacts, we need to build public will to support the new policies, technology, and investments that are going to be necessary to survive and thrive into the future. 

The recent Climate Strike is just the momentum we need. With a record 7.6 million people taking to the streets and demanding climate action, it was the biggest climate mobilization in history. Teen activist Greta Thunberg’s bold “how dare you” speechat the United Nations not only made headlines but got people talking about climate change as an empowering call-to-action. 

No sector is better positioned to bridge the gap between what we know and what we care about than arts and culture. The arts have the power to open both our hearts and minds, motivating us to act in ways that science alone cannot. For generations, nature has influenced and inspired artists in painting, drawing, and sculpture. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Art challenges us to use different neural pathways, sparking intuitive connections and imagination. It can facilitate more accessible conversations and create “watercooler moments” that introduce the topic into the mainstream and popular culture. 

Here in Boston, our coastal location places us on the front lines of the climate challenge. Our theatres, libraries, ballparks, historic houses, greenways, zoos, and museums—highly credible and trusted sources of information that engage with millions of visitors every year—can help provoke and shape the conversation around climate change. Many museums are already and increasingly focusing on environmental and sustainability themes in exhibits and programs. After all, cultural institutions are also civic institutions. We not only have a responsibility to “walk the talk” on climate change, but also to use our spaces for convening, learning, and encouraging civic discourse. We need to talk about this issue on many fronts to build the political will for changes ahead. 

At the New England Aquarium, we have the “ClimaTeens” program, a nine-month leadership training program that brings 40 high school teens together to learn about climate change, how to communicate about it, and how to take the lead on the issue in their schools and communities. We also lend our expertise in climate change communication to environmental justice communities that will bear the brunt of climate change and sea level rise. With funding through National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we are piloting this work with community organizations in East Boston including the HarborkeepersEastie Farm, and ZUMIX, and in nearby municipalities, including Chelsea, Lynn, and Hull. 

The time to act is now, and we must act together. It will be a challenge, but we have faced challenges before—from the Boston Harbor cleanup to the creation of the Greenway—and succeeded through our innovation and leadership. 

We encourage everyone to join the city’s climate outreach efforts. The Boston Green Ribbon Commission convenes business, civic, and cultural leaders to support implementation of Mayor Walsh’s Climate Action Plan, which was recently updated. Greenovate Boston invites residents to get engaged on the neighborhood level. Now the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Culture has joined in, by urging cultural institutions to use our powers to help make Boston a climate-aware and climate-prepared place to live, work, and visit.   

Let’s pick up where science leaves off, speak with purpose, and ensure that our institutions and our staff are well prepared to serve as climate activists, educators, and ambassadors to effectively engage the many visitors who come through our doors. We can work together to recruit the next generation of environmental leaders and train enough voices to shift the conversation about climate change to be more positive, civic-minded, and focused on solutions. 

Billy Spitzer is the vice president of learning and community at the New England Aquarium. He serves as a member of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission’s Cultural Institutions Working Group. 

Hey, Beacon Hill, pay attention to the arts

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.

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.

Film tax credit sunset looms

Film tax credit sunset looms

Rodrigues: ‘I still have concerns about the cost’

THE CHAIR OF THE SENATE WAYS AND MEANS Committee sounds as if he is in no hurry to eliminate the sunset provision contained in the state’s film tax credit law.

The tax credit, launched in 2006 and scheduled to sunset on December 31, 2022, has been the focus of a number of attempts to eliminate it or pare it back. All of those efforts failed because they required passing new legislation that was blocked in the House, where support for the film tax credit is strong. But now proponents of the tax credit need to pass legislation to eliminate the sunset provision, and Rodrigues, who has favored paring back the film tax credit in the past, indicated in an interview that his feelings about the credit have not changed.

“I still have concerns about the cost of the film tax credit,” he said. “I still have concerns on whether or not the Commonwealth is getting adequate return on its investments in the film industry.”

The film tax credit offers anyone shooting films, TV shows, or commercials in Massachusetts a credit equal to 25 percent of whatever they spend. The credits can be converted into cash by either selling them back to the state at 90 percent of their face value or by selling them to a corporation or individual with a large tax liability in Massachusetts.

Even though the film tax credit is not scheduled to sunset until the end of 2022, backers say the uncertainty about the credit’s future could lead to diminished investments by movie makers in Massachusetts over the next few years.

David Hartman, director of the Massachusetts Production Coalition, issued a statement saying the film tax credit has created thousands of jobs and supported businesses in 265 Massachusetts municipalities.

“Massachusetts workers and businesses in the state’s film production industry are grateful to the Legislature for their years of support that have helped make Massachusetts a leading filmmaking destination,” he said. “As the looming end date of the production incentive program puts these jobs, and the families that depend on them, at risk, we look forward to working with legislative leaders to protect – and expand – the good-paying jobs and business opportunities that the film industry creates in Massachusetts. With the exponential growth in streaming content produced by Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Apple TV+, and others, Massachusetts has a critical opportunity to continue to attract multi-year episodic series that will create even more jobs and business opportunities in the future.”

Rodrigues said he continues to have concerns about the cost of the tax credit, but he stressed that the Senate as a whole has not discussed the issue in a long time and no decision has been reached about what to do. He noted the film tax credit is very popular with many members of the House and Senate.

“Remember, a tax credit is like a grant,” Rodrigues said. “The data seem to prove that it’s very expensive, that it does not create many full-time equivalent jobs. There’s a burst of activity during a particular filming and then activity ceases when the film goes away. The credits tend to benefit out-of-state residents.”

Aquarium not making in-lieu-of-tax cash payments to Boston

Aquarium not making in-lieu-of-tax cash payments to Boston

Says no other aquarium or zoo in the US makes such contributions

THE NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM, suggesting nonprofit cultural institutions like itself are already contributing enough, says it won’t be making any in-lieu-of-tax cash payments to the city of Boston this fiscal year.

In a letter to the city’s assessor, Eric Krauss, the aquarium’s executive vice president, said the nonprofit institution is an essential component of the cultural and economic fabric of the city, providing substantial but “difficult to quantify” benefits. Making cash payments to the city, he suggested, would be a heavy burden.

“Please note that no other nonprofit aquarium or zoo in the United States makes any payments to any governmental body related to its nonprofit operations,” Kraus said. “More than 70 percent of our fellow institutions receive some form of local, county, or state government financial support for their day-to-day operations. On average, government support for those institutions represents one-third of their annual operating budget. We receive no such support.”

Boston’s payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, program was launched in 2012. The voluntary initiative is an attempt to recover some of the cost of city services from nonprofits that are tax-exempt. Every year nonprofits with property in Boston valued at more than $15 million are asked to pay 25 percent of what they would have owed had their properties been on the tax roll. Half of the payment can come in the form of in-kind contributions, the other half in cash.

The city’s cultural institutions always lag behind education and medical nonprofits in complying with the city’s request. The 10 institutions classified as cultural entities in the city’s PILOT program paid a total of  59 percent of the total payments for which they were billed in fiscal 2019, compared to 92 percent for Boston’s medical institutions and 71 percent for its educational institutions.  This distribution has remained consistent through the years.

The PILOT program is a touchy subject for many of the city’s cultural institutions.  Like the New England Aquarium, the Museum of Science, the Children’s Museum, and the Institute of Contemporary Art make no cash payments to the city’s PILOT program. The Museum of Fine Arts contributed 6.4 percent of the cash contribution it was billed this year. By contrast, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been paying the full 100 percent cash and in-kind contribution billed by the city since the program’s inception back in 2012.  That amounted to $118,000 in cash in fiscal year 2019.

“The Boston Symphony Orchestra is committed to making its voluntary PILOT contributions each year and to supporting the many services so important to the BSO,” says Mark Volpe, the president and CEO.

Vikki Spruill, the New England Aquarium’s president, said in letter to the city’s assessor earlier this year that the voluntary payments requested by the city are too much, given the organization’s small endowment and its limited flexibility on revenues and costs. “Meeting the city’s expectation for PILOT payments would be extraordinarily difficult and could impair planned operations and necessary capital improvements,” she said.

The aquarium was credited with making $231,000 worth of in-kind contributions in fiscal 2019, but it has never made any cash payments to the city.

While both cash and in-kind payments are valuable to the city, cash contributions, which are the city’s sixth largest source of revenue, are the most advantageous, according to officials.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says he recognizes that the cultural institutions play an invaluable role in the life of the city.  “Of course we always want to see improvements in their voluntary PILOT contributions so that we can continue to provide them with the same high level of city services,” he says.

Daphne Kenyon of the Lincoln Institute on Land Policy in Cambridge isn’t persuaded by such arguments.  “I reject their idea that the cultural institutions do a lot for the community and therefore they shouldn’t have to pay, because schools and hospitals do a lot for the community as well and they pay in,” says Kenyon, who has done considerable research on the operation of PILOT programs.

Sam Tyler, the former president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-backed group that monitors city finances, supports the cultural institutions’ position of providing less cash and more in-kind contributions.  “I think the city should be flexible in allowing greater than the standard 50 percent credit for them,” he says.  “In fact, in some instances, no PILOT cash payments may be justified.”

DCR begins charging Community Boating rent

DCR begins charging Community Boating rent

Starts at $5,000 a year, rises to $50,000 after 9 years

COMMUNITY BOATING INC., the nonprofit public sailing center located on the banks of the Charles River in Boston, is now paying rent to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The rental agreement represents the first time the sailing center has ever paid anything more than a token rent to the state agency that owns the land on which the center sits. Indeed, Community Boating operated for the last 10 years under a rent-free agreement that expired in 2010.

The rent under the new agreement starts out at $5,000 a year and then increases over the next nine years until it maxes out at $50,000.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump, who has been critical in past audits of DCR’s lackadaisical management of its leases and permits, issued a statement saying the Community Boating agreement is a “small step toward addressing a big problem. I encourage [DCR] to take steps to ensure all leases are current and, more importantly, put in place protections to ensure this problem doesn’t reemerge in the future.”

DCR, the largest landowner in the state, declined comment on the lease agreement, which was obtained under a public records request.

Charles Zechel, the executive director of Community Boating, said he didn’t know why it took so long to develop a rental agreement, but he raised concerns about imposing financial burdens on a nonprofit whose mission is to introduce sailing to people from all walks of life.

“Anything that makes accomplishing our important mission more difficult is an extra burden,” Zechel said.  “I think we shouldn’t have to pay anything, but that’s just me.”

Community Boating was launched in the late 1930s by Joseph Lee Jr. as a way to introduce the sport of sailing to poor residents of Boston. According to a history of Community Boating written in 2010 by Zechel and two co-authors that was published by the National Maritime Historical Society, Lee was alarmed that the Charles River basin (created with donations from his aunt, Helen Osbourne Storrow) had become a playground of the wealthy.

Determined to open the basin to a larger audience, Lee pushed and prodded a reluctant Metropolitan District Commission, the predecessor of DCR, to allow Community Boating to use state property. He and his boats even squatted on state land initially. After years of political maneuvering, lawmakers in 1940 authorized the Metropolitan District Commission to extend a lease to Community Boating at a cost of $1 a year and build the group a boathouse using funds donated to the state by the wife of James Jackson Storrow.

Community Boating today serves thousands of adult and junior members who pay fees based on income level. According to Community Boating’s website, the organization typically provides free services to youth sailors that would be valued at $200,000 a year.