Julie Burros, Boston’s chief of arts and culture (or, as she is known more colloquially, Arts Czar), believes that the arts are just as vital to Boston’s culture of innovation as the sciences — in fact, she says, the arts play a much larger role than people may expect or believe.
Burros’ faith in the power of Boston’s arts sector — and in the potential of the city’s people to rise to the occasion — is the driving force behind Boston Creates, her 15-month initiative that will draw heavily on community engagement to imagine the future of Boston’s cultural scene. The planning process will culminate with the announcement of the city’s official 10-year cultural plan in June 2016.
Boston Creates kicks off on June 2 with a Town Hall, the first of many community meetings that will take place in the coming months. The Boston Creates website will also be fully launched on the 2nd, and will include an announcement of who has been selected to serve on the Leadership Council.
The roadmap was officially announced at a press conference on April 9, as Burros and Mayor Marty Walsh outlined the intended budget and goals of Boston Creates, as well as preliminarily opened the doors to community engagement by calling for arts enthusiasts and professionals to apply to be part of the planning process. (Community Engagement Teams can still be applied for here).
“It’s going to be really fun, and really crowded, and really dynamic,” Burros says of the upcoming Town Hall. “We’re going to start off with a bang — I don’t want to spoil the surprise. We’ve got artists who have been engaged in the process who are coming up with very imaginative ways to kind of take the traditional ‘meeting’ and make it really dynamic and interactive and super fun.”
The Town Hall, Burros says, will be a vibrant introduction to the cultural plan for those looking to become engaged in the process. It will include a presentation of the timeline from Burros and her team, followed by specific breakout group discussions among attendees. Space will be made for conversations in languages other than English. The meeting will also include a collection of food trucks and the opportunity to network with people who are interested in examining the function of the arts as a tool in shaping Boston’s future.
“I’d love to change the narrative and the dialogue about this divide between the so-called ‘creative people’ and ‘artists’ and everybody else,” Burros says. “…We want to embrace that it’s part of the innovation economy for sure.”
Burros’ excitement about the planning process is palpable. To her, the need for a cultural plan is multifaceted, and goes beyond improving Boston’s status as a city; it also, in turn, improves the lives of individuals and communities.
“We’re doing a cultural plan because there hasn’t been a high level of municipal leadership or municipal investment in arts and culture, and Mayor Walsh has asked, ‘How can Boston be a municipal arts leader? What type of infrastructure do we need in place to get us there?’ Having a plan will really help us articulate where are our strengths, where can we realize more potential, what are the priorities,” she says.
“The plan is a way to gather up all of those ideas, and prioritize and understand where can we gain the most ground by investing and sort of building our infrastructure,” Burros says. “Another goal and endgame of the plan is to help empower tomorrow’s arts leadership, empower people in the neighborhoods and all different kinds of communities to have a role in the cultural future of their community. That they can maybe move forward with their own steam … or indeed with support from city government.”
Burros says she is especially excited to undertake such an ambitious endeavor in Boston because of its reputation as a place where innovators gather. A lot of her team’s work over the coming months will involve mapping assets, and looking to the community to articulate needs and define success.
“There’s a lot of new data that tells us different ways that people engage in arts and culture. Even the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) has changed how they’re measuring participation in arts and culture: downloading music, or watching videos online, or playing video games, or watching other people play video games are all aspects of people participating in arts and culture,” Burros says.
She envisions that the data collected by Boston Creates’ research partner WolfBrown and her team's asset map will become open and available to people in Boston’s tech sectors. She hopes that young coders and hackers will utilize the information to ask questions and develop solutions on relevant issues in the planning process, such as how to address the disparity between highly concentrated areas of arts and culture, and areas that Burros calls “arts deserts."
Alongside individual empowerment and community involvement, Burros’ vision for Boston’s future is one where equality and ease of access are paramount.
“The vision is for having fewer barriers to get in the way of people fully participating in the cultural life of the city. Whether that barrier is a physical one, a geographical one, one of resources, or access, or even having resources to create new arts endeavors,” she says. “Removing barriers is a huge part of my vision.”
The Boston Creates Town Hall will take place on Tuesday, June 2 at 6 p.m. at the English High School in Jamaica Plain. Register here. Check the Boston Creates website for information on subsequent neighborhood conversations.
Spencer Icasiano's work has appeared in DigBoston, the Improper Bostonian and most recently The ARTery.