Arts organizations surprised and disappointed by federal funds allotment

“Deep disappointment,” is how Dawn Simmons, co-producing artistic director at The Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company, described her response to the legislation.

“This is about gainful employment, the life and stability of people in the Commonwealth,” said Simmons. “It was really disappointing to see it not even coming close.”

All told, the final bill claims to allot some $135 million to the state’s arts and culture recovery — well shy of the $575 million suggested by a special legislative commission over the summer. Moreover, arts leaders say the $135 million in the final bill is misleading. More than half of the spending lawmakers inserted into the section of the bill for arts, culture, and tourism — nearly $75 million — is earmarked for pet projects, most of which are not obviously related to either the arts or culture. One such example: $50 million for improvements to MBTA stations in Norfolk County.

(The bill also provides a separate $13.5 million in earmarks for capital improvements in culture and tourism.)

Meanwhile, the Mass Cultural Council, which was expecting between $75 million and $125 million, is getting just $60 million for statewide grant-making to cultural organizations.

Michael Bobbitt, who became the MCC’s executive director in February, said he was surprised to see so many unrelated earmarks in “our line item.”

“It was shocking,” he said. “There were dozens and dozens that had nothing to do with the cultural sector.”

Equally troubling, say arts leaders, is that while the bill urges the Cultural Council to “consider racial, geographic and programmatic diversity and equity” when distributing funds, a vanishingly small percentage of earmarked funds is slated for arts organizations that focus on people of color, according to an analysis by MASSCreative, a statewide arts advocacy organization.

“That is disheartening,“ said Catherine T. Morris, executive director of Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Fest, an arts nonprofit that emphasizes artists of color. She added that the earmark process, which often relies on insider knowledge and political connections, puts organizations such as hers at a disadvantage. “We’re all now fighting for a small pool of money, which is not fair.”

State Senator Edward Kennedy, the senate chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development, said he “was hoping for more money than what we ended up getting.”

“I was surprised,” he said, acknowledging the final figure for the MCC was lower than expected. He surmised the legislative committee that decided final allocations “was just overwhelmed with requests.”

Baker is expected to sign the bill Monday and may amend or veto portions of the legislation. The state still has more than $2 billion in additional American Rescue Plan funds that have yet to be allocated.

Bobbitt, who said the MCC’s $60 million allotment will be “tight,” added that, without a substantial investment in the arts, the state will leave idle a powerful engine of economic recovery.

According to one survey, Greater Boston’s cultural sector normally contributes some $2 billion annually to the local economy, while creating some 30,000 jobs — nearly as many as the region’s retail sector. That same survey found that more than 21 million people attended an arts or cultural event in 2018, more than four times all major Boston sports events combined.

The pandemic, of course, brought much of that to a screeching halt, as museums, theaters, clubs, and other cultural venues and events shuttered during that bruising first wave.

In March, the MCC released data that indicated the sector had lost nearly $600 million in revenue since the onset of the pandemic, affecting more than 30,000 jobs statewide.

“The state cannot recover without significant … investment into the arts sector,” said Bobbitt, who added he welcomed the additional funding. “We know that for every dollar they invest, we put $5 back into the economy; so in my mind, double down, invest more, because we’ll put more back in.”

Meanwhile, recovery in the sector is stuttering, as the resurgent virus forces organizations again to cancel events and skittish audiences keep attendance figures low.

“There needs to be continued and consistent investment in the sector,” said Emily Ruddock, MASSCreative’s executive director, who also served on the commission. “We will continue to work with our partners within the legislature to help make sure that they understand the needs out there.”

Nevertheless, arts leaders say they were dismayed to learn that such a high percentage of funds falling under the arts and culture umbrella are going instead to a smorgasbord of seemingly unrelated projects, including sewer work in Barnstable, sidewalks in Winthrop, wastewater in Sandwich, and the aforementioned train stations in Norfolk County.

“I’m not seeing the relationship with the arts and culture sector,” said Morris. “There needs to be clarity about how those dollars are actually going to be integrated into the arts and culture ecosystem.”

Less than 30 percent of all earmarks are going to arts and cultural organizations or projects, according to MASSCreative’s analysis. That figure shrinks dramatically — to less than 1 percent — when talking about arts organizations that focus on Black, Indigenous, and people of color, prompting BIPOC arts leaders to argue the legislation — and particularly the earmark process — left them out of the equation.

“It doesn’t seem to honor an anti-racist and anti-oppression approach,” said Karthik Subramanian, co-executive director of Company One Theatre, which often works with artists and audiences of color. “A lot of like BIPOC leaders that I’ve had conversations with didn’t even know that earmarks exist as a thing.”

For those who do, it’s often an uphill battle, said the Front Porch’s Simmons, who added that many BIPOC-led organizations are small and don’t have the resources to lobby legislators effectively.

“I don’t have the resources to dedicate the staff, I don’t have the board connections, I don’t have the time to put into that process,” she said. “And when you don’t have that, it’s inequitable.”

Kennedy said he’s working on a new bill that would funnel an additional $200 million to arts and culture organizations via the MCC.

“This is going to be very helpful in the short term, but there’s clearly going to be a need for additional funding,” he said. “They need more money than what they’ve gotten so far.”

In the meantime, Bobbitt noted that the MCC’s present allotment is roughly three times the council’s normal allocation.

“We’re just going to do our best to figure out how to allocate that in the best, most impactful way,” he said. “It’s still a lot of money.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.

Angelia S. Rico

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