SouthCoast arts make a pitch for increased state investment

Massachusetts State House. (Photo by Aaron Ye/BU News Service)

By Susannah Sudborough
BU News Service

BOSTON — Are the arts an important part of the economy that the state should invest in?

Members of the SouthCoast arts community certainly think so.

Local arts advocates are citing the important resources provided by the Mass Cultural Council in calling on state leaders to increase the money for publicly funded art that they say provides benefits for residents and the regional economy.

During Arts Advocacy Day on March 26, over 400 attendees held meetings at over 80 legislative offices, more than 20 artists were showcased at the Statehouse, and over 200 people marched around the Boston Common to show their support for state funding of the arts.

The Mass Cultural Council, a state agency that provides grants to local cultural councils, organizations and artists, as well as other arts supporters at the event, advocated for the state budget to allocate $18 million for arts and culture investments. That’s $2 million more than what Gov. Charlie Baker initially proposed.

Council Executive Director Anita Walker said that her agency works with over 400 nonprofit arts and culture organizations, supporting them through state-funded grants and helping them with their business model so that they can stay afloat and continue serving their communities.

AHA! New Bedford, the local nonprofit arts and history organization that organizes events such as cultural nights, has recorded the regional influence of the arts community. According to their Fiscal Year 2015 economic impact statement, for every $1,000 in direct expenditures on its program, an additional $460 in sales is generated for other businesses in the region.

In addition, their visitor survey found that 77 percent of AHA! attendees patronized or planned to patronize a downtown restaurant before, during, or after attending an event, and 57 percent said they had a more positive view of downtown New Bedford as a result of attending their events.

“New Bedford has advocated for the importance of arts and culture, demonstrated it, documented it, and benefited from it,” said AHA! Director Lee Heald.

In total, Southeastern Massachusetts received $530,400 from Mass Cultural Council this fiscal year. The City of New Bedford alone received over $200,000.

“Mass Cultural Council makes sure various organizations around New Bedford get what they need,” said Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford.

Of their grants, Walker said a crucial part of the money they give to organizations is to cover operating and facilities costs through their Cultural Investments Portfolio and Cultural Facilities Fund. She said these funds go to both world-class and small local organizations.

Amanda McMullen, president of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, said that the Mass Cultural Council’s support allows the museum to do everything from building repairs to opening their doors every day.

Ashley Occhino, executive director of the New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks!, said that it is harder to find grants for operating costs than for specific programming, and that she appreciates funding they receive through the Cultural Investment Portfolio because the organization can use that money for whatever they need.

Also critical is the agency’s investment in local cultural councils which allows communities to invest in the local artists they choose. That results in a more grassroots arts initiative, Walker explained. Other grassroots investments include funding town festivals, which she sees as having particular value because there is no barrier to entry and because it aids community and cultural identity building.

Laura Orleans, executive director of the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center, said that grants from local cultural councils have enabled the organization to present a variety of public programs, such as exploring the evolution of wheelhouse technology and its impact on the fishing community. Local cultural institutions like the center teach the community to learn about its heritage and helps it come together to talk about ideas and issues.

The Mass Cultural Council also supports youth arts initiatives through many programs. The Big Yellow School Bus program pays for children to go on field trips to experience local arts and culture. The Creative Minds Out of School is an arts-focused after-school program. And the STARS program sends teaching artists into the classroom.

David Prentiss, president of the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, said that the local cultural council grants they receive support the orchestra’s Learning in Concert program, which sends orchestra members to teach in schools. The orchestra visits every elementary school in New Bedford and over a dozen in the surrounding area, serving over 8,000 children, he said. The orchestra also receives STAR grants which allows education staff and musicians to go into classrooms more often.

Emily Ruddock, director of policy and government affairs at MASSCreative, one of the organizations leading Arts Advocacy Day, highlighted the importance of state arts funding. She said that the cost of admission to most nonprofit art and culture events or exhibits often only covers about 30 percent of operating costs. State investments are critical to providing funding that keeps admission costs low, Ruddock said.

Walker said it can be hard to find other sources of funding. Corporate donations have declined in recent years, she said, and they often come with strings attached that cut into whatever money is gained, such as a condition that complimentary seats or a reception be provided.

In addition, Walker said, private foundations that previously committed funding to the arts have been shifting priorities, especially in regards to funding youth arts programs.

Ruddock and Walker stressed that keeping arts and culture accessible to all is a priority for their organizations because they believe everyone should be able to reap the benefits in their communities.

One effort Mass Cultural Council has made to ensure accessibility was to create the EBT Card to Culture program. Throughout the commonwealth, over 160 cultural organizations have agreed to let people in for free, or at a deeply reduced cost, if they show an EBT, or welfare benefits, card at admission.

Walker said that over 250,000 admissions have taken place using this system in its first year and a half, and that it was the first time, or first time in a long time, that many of the attendees had participated in arts and culture.

Arts education can be particularly inequitable among Massachusetts communities, Ruddock said. There is a linkage between the wealth of a tax base and how much money is put towards the arts in schools.

“If you’re in a gateway city where there is not as much money to fund the arts in schools, that’s just another way kids can be left behind,” said Ruddock.

Arts education in schools exercises children’s creative impulses, and prepares them to be a part of the creative economy, said Walker. Youth arts programs can also help young people transitioning to adulthood who are in hostile homes, who might be tempted to join gangs, and those in families that are struggling financially.

“It helps them chart their own path,” Walker said.

Occhino said she has seen this happen through the art museum’s Teen Artist Internship program, in which a working artist is paired with a teen artist to create an exhibition. Artists in the program are funded by local cultural councils. The program has gone on for 15 years, long enough for one of the former teens to become an artist mentor.

Advocates also emphasize the economic benefits of having a strong arts and culture scene in a community. Ruddock explained that cultural institutions help local businesses located near them by bringing people to a town center. When someone goes to see a concert or visits a museum, she said, they often go out to dinner, pay for parking, go shopping and visit other sites downtown.

Walker added that many visitors who come to experience arts and culture in Massachusetts come from out of state or even from outside the country, and that this brings new money into the commonwealth. She said this creates extra tax revenue that can be put towards funding other priorities.

Supporters also tout the less quantifiable benefits of arts and culture. Walker said arts and culture are a great antidote to isolation and loneliness and can improve one’s sense of well-being.

Occhino said the art museum views itself as a community arts center as well. She said they host movie screenings, wine tastings, and try to connect people through non-traditional art experiences.

“They’re not just here to see the artwork, they’re here to connect with friends and family,” said Occhino.

In addition to requesting more money for arts funding in the state budget, advocates are supporting a bill that would require that 1 percent of state funding for capital improvements go to creating and maintaining public art.

Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield and one of the sponsors of the bill, said that this money would likely generate $2 million itself and be used to create art such as murals, sculptures and works commissioned by towns.

“The role of arts is central to our economy and the revitalization of our downtowns,” said Hinds. “It creates a space that people want to live in.”

Walker said she is confident that the Legislature will be willing to allocate the extra $2 million as long as the economy stays strong. She pointed out that Gov. Baker allotted the same amount to arts and culture in his proposed budget that was allotted last year and that this was a positive sign.

Even so, arts advocates agree that public arts funding is essential for thriving communities, and when more people understand the benefits of art and culture, more funding will be put towards it.

“It could be a kid learning to express themselves through dance or a local business benefiting economically,” said Heald. “Once you’ve experienced it, you understand how important it is.”

This article was previously published in South Coast Today.

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