The recently formed Cultural Caucus, a loose, formal coalition comprising a dozen arts-friendly state legislators, appears poised to christen its political life by inserting itself into what could be the most intense statewide political battle of the spring legislative session: the move to allow casino gambling in Massachusetts.
The threat that gaming poses to arts and culture may not seem obvious, but that's exactly why the arts community is asking the caucus to be its white knight.
Arts advocates are convinced that gambling, whether in the form of "resort-style" casinos or race-track slot parlors, will cut directly into the money that households spend on the arts. Their fear is that a green light for gambling will be the death knell for performing-arts centers and organizations, both large and small, which are already suffering financially.
One reason for the fears of theater owners in particular is that state casinos might include performance arenas, which in their opinion will provide unfair competition — unfair because, for the casinos, entertainment is a loss leader to bring people onto the premises to gamble. Casinos can thus offer more money to performers, and charge less to patrons, than standalone performance centers can.
For a good idea of what kind of model arts organizations here in Massachusetts will be up against, one need look only as far south as Connecticut, where the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos have become entertainment meccas, each with several theaters presenting acts ranging from stand-up comics, such as Jerry Seinfeld, to musicians, such as Jay-Z, who plays Mohegan Sun this Saturday.
The bottom line, say arts advocates, is that existing venues will be affected, as will the vibrant scene they provide for cities and towns from the Berkshires to Cape Cod.
Members of the Cultural Caucus say they were not thinking of casinos when they gathered a month ago for their first meeting. Together with key players like the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) and the Boston Foundation, the lawmakers were motivated by concern over state budget reductions, which has seen cultural funding drop from close to $20 million in 1998 to less than $10 million this year. A caucus, they thought, could better make the case for viewing arts as an investment in the "creative economy."
There was also, according to some, concern about waning influence on Beacon Hill. The arts community recently lost an effective lobbyist, Dan Hunter, who left the Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities (MAASH) in December to form a consulting business. And the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development (many of whose members are also in the new caucus), once headed by more powerful lawmakers, is newly co-chaired this session by first-term senator Sonia Chang-Díaz and third-term representative John Keenan.
Although funding was their primary focus, the people behind the caucus were prepared to think bigger.
"Certainly funding is important, but it is important for us to think creatively," says Chang-Díaz of Jamaica Plain, who is also co-chairing the caucus. She hopes the caucus members can serve as a watchdog to find the potential positive or negative impacts to arts and culture hidden within the 6000-plus bills filed on Beacon Hill each year.