Need for a culture shift

When it comes to issues such as silos in Boston’s arts and culture world, the need for greater equity and inclusion, or the way Boston has traditionally funded organizations in this sector, many of the greatest challenges do not arise solely from the external environment. Although such pressures as rapid development and economic factors are very real, some of the primary challenges facing the city’s arts and culture sector come from outdated mindsets and approaches to the arts. Today’s diverse and dynamic Boston demands new ways of seeing and acting that amount to a culture shift in how we approach arts and culture.

For example, the fragmentation in Boston’s arts and culture sector, described above, is in many cases more a matter of habit and custom than the result of formal barriers. In a city where the past is always visible, the prestige of some of the larger, older arts and culture institutions creates an impression, for some, that arts and culture in Boston is primarily the domain of these major players. It will take a change in perspective, then, for the city to begin valuing all of its arts and culture institutions equally.

Moreover, distinctions between formal and informal art, or fine art and folk art, are too often a part of Boston’s way of viewing arts and culture. Unfortunately they create and reinforce divisions across lines of race, ethnicity, class, and geography. Instead of maintaining these boundaries as if they were hard and fast, we should celebrate and take advantage of what the great American writer Ralph Ellison called “one of the most precious of American freedoms, which is our freedom to broaden our personal culture by absorbing the cultures of others.”

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Free Bike Repair (August 13, 2015): Boston Cyclists Union offers free bike repair clinics to anyone who is interested. Just bring your bike and be willing to get your hands dirty. Photo by Leonardo March.

Finally, newcomers to Boston have observed that our city—a world-class generator of path-breaking ideas, inventions, and enterprises—remains oddly hierarchical in where it looks for civic leadership, expecting it to come exclusively from certain major institutions.

At the same time, there has until recently been no expectation that City government and the city’s major foundations and corporations would support arts and culture the way that individual patrons in Boston have long supported them. This makes Boston unlike other American cities, where arts and culture benefit greatly from coordinated public, corporate, and foundation support.

The good news is that we can change our attitudes and behavior and set new expectations. As a result of the Boston Creates cultural planning process, this change has already begun. Scores of participants in the process have noted how many valuable connections they made and collaborations they took part in while engaged in it. Boston Creates and the work of implementing the plan must continue to be a platform for achieving collaboration and change.