BRING IN THE MOB
Some local arts funders agree that public art can also highlight a city's artistic and cultural diversities, and they're taking up the mantle. The Boston Foundation, for one, believes that visible creative diversity is fundamental to any major city that wants to be — and remain — economically competitive in a global marketplace.
The Foundation's senior program officer for the arts, Javier Torres, says the Foundation is looking at ways in which conversations around the arts tend to be skewed. "Within a hierarchy," he says, " 'Arts' becomes an expression of individual culture." Meaning, cultures and ethnicities that are the most visible in the arts are so because they've been historically valued and given the resources to become visible.
Torres believes that Boston's greatest wealth comes from its cultural spectrum, rather than its hierarchy. He points out that Boston is the fifth most ethnically diverse city in the country. To highlight the artistic traditions and voices that exist in these communities, and to nurture and promote fun and spontaneity, the Foundation has established a small grants program, set to launch later this year. As part of this new program, the Foundation will provide grants of $2500 or less to fund what they're referring to as "cultural flash mobs."
Cultural flash mobs will be "unexpected presentations of culture," Torres says. Presentations will be able to take any form, he explains, from "traditional Thai dance," for example, "to Peruvian poetry, to a group of Haitian young people that want to reinterpret the sword scene from Romeo and Juliet and want to present it in Haitian Creole on a T platform." Funding anywhere from 20 to 25 of these cultural flash mobs per year, the Foundation sees the program as an opportunity to engage with Boston's less visible cultural producers, the non-MFAs and Gardner Museums and BSOs.
In a follow-up to the 2003 report, the Boston Foundation issued their 2007 report titled Vital Signs: Metro Boston's Arts and Cultural Nonprofits, 1999 and 2004,which found that Boston's network of smaller arts and cultural organizations were struggling financially as a result of the recession, but also as a result of shifts in the city's audience demographics. The report's findings showed that "arts and culture offerings may not adequately reflect the needs and values of the region's growing minority population; culturally specific organizations are a negligible share of the sector." The report also discovered that many small to mid-range (budgets less than $20 million) arts and culture organizations were not equipped to qualify for the Foundation's support for a number of reasons. Many were not financially stable enough, organizationally, to qualify for support, but perhaps most important, the majority of them were not diverse enough in their offerings to successfully engage Boston's shifting demographics, resulting in decreased audience revenue as a result of cultural irrelevance.
As a result, the Boston Foundation is now working with a wide range of neighborhood-based arts organizations to help them be financially sustainable and programmatically effective, to ensure a network of visible and viable neighborhood-based arts and culture organizations.
"In the end," says Torres, "it's an opportunity to really weave arts and culture into our daily lives. It is to highlight the richness of cultural assets that we have in this city, and it elevates all of the tradition-bearers of the non-Western canons that exist in Boston." Torres's example of the cultural flash mobs illustrates the belief that a greater range of venues will make visible the ethnic diversity of the city's artists, many of whom are overlooked by the canon and therefore the city's institutional venues. It also gets to a larger point: Boston's artists need a greater array of venues for their work.
"If we're looking for an increase in regional or economic competitiveness," Torres says, "we have to become more widely attractable to broader and different audiences. And that's gonna take a more rich diversity of cultural offerings that currently exist, but that aren't all visible."