For Boston’s first-ever cultural plan, Boston Creates, city leaders intended from the start to hear from as many voices as possible.
“The big challenge is to make sure we are hearing all the voices and that everyone is represented,” Joyce Linehan, Boston’s chief of policy, said last year, according to Boston magazine.
The city (and funders the Barr and Klarman foundations) created a structure in which volunteer organizers from every Boston neighborhood held meetings and events to make sure every neighborhood’s concerns were heard.
At the 11th hour, though, it was clear something was missing.
“The consulting team had been on the ground for months and developing their engagement strategy,” says Katarzyna Balug, the co-founder of artist collective Department of Play. “And I think just a week or so before the official launch of the planning process … they got feedback that artists should be part of the process.”
Enter Department of Play, which is made up of Balug and co-founder Maria Vidart-Delgado. Balug and Vidart-Delgado brought on three more artists, whom they dubbed “artist-ethnographers” for their dual role in going out into the community and documenting or observing it.
“They went out into neighborhoods,” says E. San San Wong, the Barr Foundation’s senior program officer for arts and creativity. “They participated in community meetings but also created other forums.” Artist Shaw Pong Liu, for example, created What Artists Knead, a community bread-baking activity where dough traveled from neighborhood to neighborhood. “I think they went out … as artists do, to just unassumingly begin conversations and ask those hard questions.”
In addition to Pong Liu’s bread project, photographer Leo March made images of cultural festivals in immigrant neighborhoods and multimedia artist Heather Kapplow wrapped a city vehicle with handwritten quotes from residents expressing their feelings about the arts.
Department of Play also ran a number of programs. They created foam blocks shaped like the Boston Creates logo that gave residents at fairs and meetings a tactile way to express themselves and meet their neighbors. “We find if we give people an outrageous prompt they start building,” Balug says. “If we invite them to build their ideas for policy out of these abstract ‘Bs,’ they could build this shape and tell me it means we need more artist housing. If you asked them to draw it or write it down you might not get the same response.”
They also created personas of time-traveling art curators from the future. The city had created an online map asking people to locate places where they create or experience art. (“I make/perform here.” “I view public art here.” “I learn an art here.”) Balug and Vidart-Delgado asked the city to add a category of “I imagine here.”
“There wasn’t [prior to the addition of that category] a lot of space to give us specific ideas for what you want to see and where,” Balug says.
Balug and Vidart-Delgado printed out the suggestions people had submitted to the map, framed them and hung them in the location — while wearing powdered wigs. Passersby wanted selfies with the oddly costumed duo, and dialogue was born.
One man “that really impressed us,” recalls Balug, was someone who didn’t understand why the duo was there in his low-income neighborhood in the first place. “‘Why would there be this art complex here, across the street from the projects?’ There’s a sentiment that art and beauty belong downtown and not in the neighborhoods,” Balug says. “And also probably a fear: ‘What does that mean? If ‘official’ culture starts to creep into my neighborhood, will I be displaced?’”
The city released its final plan June 17, after a draft came out a month earlier and stakeholders had a chance to offer feedback. The draft plan had come under fire by arts groups for being too vague, suggesting goals like “create fertile ground for … [an] arts and culture ecosystem” without clear timelines or a dedicated funding stream.
“People want a percent of our overall budget. We’re not there yet,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told the Boston Globe. “But we’re certainly investing a lot more than the city’s ever invested in the arts, and we’re building toward that permanent line item. … We’re going to be working toward a line item like the police have, like the libraries have, like public works has. That’s ultimately our goal.”
Some concrete actions have already been announced; Walsh noted in his January State of the City speech a $1 million earmark for the arts, about $400,000 of which will go to individual artists living in the city. At the unveiling of the final Boston Creates plan, Walsh also said the city will set aside units for artists in all future public housing developments, starting with 10 at the Bunker Hill public housing development, slated to become a 1,110-unit mixed-income project. And the mayor intends to sign an order this summer that will provide funding equal to about 1 percent of the city’s anticipated annual general borrowing to invest in public art for new city projects.
These are likely actions that would have taken place with or without artist involvement. But that wasn’t their role.
“My hope is … it’s not about feeding data into the plan,” says Barr Foundation’s Wong, “but it’s really about participation. It’s about how do you get somebody engaged in a process.”
“For us,” says Balug, “the big realization was how important the way you ask questions — and what you ask — is. Some of the official questions were like, ‘How are you creative?’ That’s a really high barrier to entry. If I work in a bank or drive a bus, maybe it’s hard to think about how I am creative. Maybe it’s, ‘what do I think about culture for my kids?’ We were trying to engage people around [the question of] what kind of a city do you want to live in. We didn’t need to have a quantifiable answer.
“People who are used to going to planning meetings have very canned answers for what their demands are. How do you get at a more genuine answer and how do you actually get residents thinking about what they want to have culturally? … That’s kind of where we think art can go.”
Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.