As executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC), Anita Walker has been running on what sometimes appears to be a boundless reserve of energy. For more than a decade, she’s worked to nurture hundreds of organizations, historic sites and artists from all genres throughout the state — always with a big smile on her face. An ardent arts cheerleader, Walker has been seen bouncing between the corridors of the State House to Cape Cod then off to Springfield and the Berkshires. Now, after 13 years on the job, she’s retiring.
During her tenure, the independent state arts agency has distributed millions in grant funding from the state and the National Endowment of the Arts. The money goes to large institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts and Boston Symphony Orchestra, but also smaller organizations including the Aquinnah Cultural Center on Martha’s Vineyard.
Walker and her team have also supported artists through fellowships, apprenticeships and youth programs, along with launching innovative initiatives to make art more available and affordable to the public, especially in underserved communities.
Walker listed a few examples. “Our Up program, which is really focused on accessibility for people who have difficulty navigating the world; our Creative Youth Development Program, which really unleashes the agency of vulnerable teenagers; and our newest initiative, CultureRx, which is really at the intersection of the health and well-being of the people of Massachusetts and the power of arts and culture to improve that.”
When asked why she’s ready to hang up her hat after enthusiastically greasing the wheels that keep the state’s creative economy humming, Walker said it “feels right” because the MCC is in great shape. “If I’m going to move on, this is the time to do it,” she added, “the work it’s doing is at the top of its game.”
Walker is clearly proud of her many accomplishments with the MCC, but speaks about them in “we” terms not “me” terms.
“I think we've built an environment of trust between our state agency and the constituents that we serve,” she said. “We've built strong relationships in communities — whether it's in the offices of the mayor, or elected officials, or the working artists, or the chambers of commerce, or the people that are running cultural organizations and nonprofits.”
Walker has worked closely with state legislators and fought for budget increases every year. She’s had an impact on buildings and grounds around the state, too, via the Cultural Facilities Fund.
“This is the only state in the nation that has consistently addressed cultural infrastructure,” Walker said. “You know, we're the caretakers — not just of treasures here in Massachusetts — but we're responsible for the nation's historic sites. I mean, we're the birthplace of democracy. I’m so proud of Massachusetts for rising to the challenge and being good stewards.”
Walker is gratified by the January release of research from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies that found the MCC grants more money to more recipients and communities than in any other state in the U.S.
“We support 400 cultural nonprofits in the arts, humanities and interpretive science,” Walker said. “This is brand new research from our national association. So we do more grantmaking in Massachusetts, than New York and California and Texas and much larger states. Talk about punching above your weight.”
The MCC also supports 329 local cultural councils and about 50 cultural districts.
“There's really no part of life in Massachusetts that doesn't in some way benefit from the intersection with the arts and culture,” Walker said.
Walker will be missed, according to Nina Fialkow, chair of the MCC. “The Council has deep gratitude and appreciation for Anita’s vision, passion and leadership in the nonprofit cultural sector,” she said in the council’s retirement announcement. “We are thankful for her 13 years of service and grateful that she will be with us four more months to ensure the important work of the council continues.”
The MCC’s governing council is working with a search firm to find the MCC’s next executive director.
Walker grew up in California and said she’ll be heading west after retiring in June to spend more time with her sons.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Massachusetts Cultural Council's initiative CultureRx. We regret the error.