And we need artists to do more than just enliven the city's public spaces, but initiatives like the cultural flash mobs do what Neelon and Perry suggest: signal that Boston is a city receptive to cultural exchange and artistic risk.
After all, history tourists and fine arts museums alone do not a cultural capital make. The era of the Fort Point– and South Station–area lofts is gone forever, and given the current atmosphere of economic volatility, the inclinations of deep-pocket private donors and collectors are not something to be depended on.
What we need, according to Ann McQueen, is to prioritize art on both a personal and public level. "When we don't look at things as holistically as we should, we lose parts of ourselves," she says. Novotny-Jones agrees. "Art is about transformation," she notes. "Contemporary artists are the purveyors and makers of change; we question culture and desire transformation."
Showing that belief in the inherent cultural value of contemporary art and artists is possible even during times of depleted funding. Other cities and states have found any number of creative solutions. North Carolina and Minnesota both have dedicated taxes ensuring continued arts funding, Philadelphia responded to its close proximity to New York's art market dominance by establishing a network of alternative arts spaces, while Pittsburgh offered a range of vacant buildings as subsidized housing, studio, and office space to its artists. Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and others have hired their local graffiti artists to enliven blank walls. San Francisco provides empty store fronts on main thoroughfares as rotating exhibition spaces for emerging artists of all stripes while the SF Arts Commission sponsors block-party-style openings for them.
Novotny-Jones, remembering a time when Boston's contemporary artists felt more connected to one another, believes that the city could try many low-cost initiatives to dynamically engage its artist community. "There are so many vacant lots and buildings in Boston that I would love to see artists occupy and transform, if only temporarily," she says. Novotny-Jones wonders why there's not even a simple Facebook page run by the city's Department of Arts and Tourism to facilitate artistic dialog and connect Boston's communities of art makers to one another. "Tourism is all about movie companies that want to make movies here; there are artists that live here, too," she says. "Not everyone benefits from a movie being made here."
There have, of course, been efforts made to bring the city's contemporary art culture more in line with those of other major cities. Innovative spaces such as White Walls Boston and Axiom Center for New and Experimental Media have spoken to Boston's potential for a vibrant contemporary art scene that pushes boundaries, as well as to its community of artistic experimenters. But these are private, patchwork efforts, rather than an organized city push. Ideally, Boston would create a dedicated, robust arts commission that funds, promotes, and networks the diverse, leading-edge work being made in the city. The city — ranked number one in the country for innovation — could at the very least bring its "Resources for Visual Artists" Web page up to the 21st Century. Elderly white women, after all, aren't the only visual artists in Boston, and three links are not a library of resources.
Mchael Braithwaite can be reached at email@example.com.