Arts and culture made a cameo appearance in the Massachusetts governor’s race late last week. Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Martha Coakley announced her arts and culture platform, and Republican Charlie Baker released his responses to a survey seeking candidates’ views of arts, culture and the creative economy.
MASSCreative, the two-year-old statewide advocacy group that has spurred a frisson of interest in arts issues in the political arena, tagged the candidates’ statements to #ArtsMatterDay, an Oct. 24 advocacy event in which more than 300 artists and arts organizations shared stories on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter about why arts matter.
Speaking at the Victory Theater in Holyoke on that day, Coakley cast herself as a champion of the arts, who would explore the possibility of creating a new cabinet position charged with integrating the arts in education, economic development, transportation, housing and environmental affairs. The Massachusetts attorney general committed to working with the state Legislature to double funding for the Massachusetts Cultural Council (which, at $12 million, is half what it was 20 years ago). She would also bolster Gov. Deval Patrick’s $15 million allocation to the state’s Cultural Facilities Fund for capital improvements, she said.
Coakley—who tapped her sister, Jane Coakley, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Society, and Barbara Grossman, Tufts University drama professor, veteran arts supporter, and wife of state Treasurer and former gubernatorial hopeful Steve Grossman, as her arts and culture advisers—said she would use the office of governor to showcase the cultural resources of the commonwealth, and collaborate with business leaders and small creative companies to increase tourism and advance the creative economy. An advocate of what she calls expanded learning opportunities, Coakley wants to de-emphasize “teaching to the test,” and expand arts instruction in public schools.
The evening before Coakley’s announcement, Baker’s campaign returned the candidate’s responses to an extensive MASSCreative questionnaire that was sent to every registered gubernatorial candidate last March. In it, the candidate asserted that “arts, culture and creativity bring great joy and color to our lives and communities,” and said he considers the creative economy an important part of the state’s economy. Baker contends “the arts are an important aspect of a complete and well-rounded education,” and says that, as governor, he would “work to ensure wide access to the arts in public schools.”
The Republican hopeful, a former health care executive who served as secretary of administration and finance under former Massachusetts Govs. Weld and Cellucci, maintains that his policy proposals—such as lowering taxes and easing small business regulations—would help the creative community thrive. He intends to encourage the private sector to invest in the arts, he said, and is interested in finding ways the state can partner with the nonprofit and private sectors to advance creative interests.
Baker’s answers to specific survey questions about spending on arts and culture—such as what he might allocate to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, for example—were imprecise. Asked what level of funding he would recommend for the council, he said he would work with the state arts agency “to ensure it is receiving adequate funding to accomplish its mission.” Tim Buckley, communications director for the Baker campaign, said Baker couldn’t define “adequate support” until after taking office. “We don’t know what the fiscal situation will be,” Buckley explained.
Matt Wilson, executive director of MASSCreative, said he believes both candidates “appreciate and understand the role arts and culture play in the commonwealth.“ Wilson’s interest—and the focus of MASSCreative’s Create the Vote campaign in the current election—is not on candidates or public officials, but on identifying and engaging “arts voters” and political constituents, he says.
UPDATE Oct. 31: The arts vote emerged as a factor in last year’s Boston Mayoral race, particularly after then-Rep. Marty Walsh announced during the summer that he would create a new cabinet-level “arts czar” in his administration. As the race heated up, most candidates echoed Walsh—including John Connolly, his rival in the final. (Mayor Walsh last month fulfilled that promise, naming Julie Burros, a veteran city of Chicago arts administrator, as Boston’s first chief of arts and culture.)
MASSCreative put together the first-ever mayoral candidates’ debate on arts and culture, packing the 600-seat Paramount Theatre on Sept. 9, 2013. They held forums with individual mayoral hopefuls, and as voters turned out, politicians stepped up. “That never would have happened without the debate and the work MASSCreative has done,” contends Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a founding organizational supporter of MASSCreative.
Support for arts and culture in Massachusetts is not in danger. But it is by no means robust, according to Grogan. Boston Foundation studies have shown that Massachusetts lags behind other states in allocating critical resources—such as funds for arts education and capital improvements—to the arts sector. “There’s a need for strong and effective statewide advocacy," he said, "because the arts are still an easy thing to cut.”
MASSCreative distributed questionnaires to all candidates running for public office in 2014, and invited them to sit-down discussions. They sponsored the state’s first-ever gubernatorial debate on arts and culture, drawing 500 people to the Hanover Theatre in Worcester July 15.
But Wilson says his attention isn’t trained on candidates but on MASSCreative’s constituents during this election season. The organization is dedicated to showing—rather than telling—politicians why the arts matter; how support for arts and culture improves the public good.
That is what drove Arts Matter Day last Friday, he said. Groups ranging from the Celebrity Series to Zumix, and cultural and civic leaders from Museum of Fine Arts Director Malcolm Rogers to Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, posted more than 100 videos and 500 photos on #ArtsAppreciationDay, according to MASSCreative. Some 1,200 Twitter users sent tweets.
“Politicians are only going to become champions for the arts community if they believe others care about these issues,” said Wilson. “It’s up to us to show them.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported the timing of then-Rep. Marty Walsh's announcement that he would appoint a cabinet-level "arts czar." We regret the error.
A former arts and culture reporter for the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix, Maureen Dezell is a freelance writer and senior editor at Boston College.