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Interview with Boston’s New Chief of Arts and Culture

Julie Burros

This past fall, following a six-month national search, Boston mayor Marty Walsh appointed Julie Burros to become Boston’s first Chief of Arts and Culture. Burros moved to Boston from Chicago where she had been Director of Cultural Planning since 2000. As Burros assembles a team and formulates cultural policy with Boston arts communities and art leaders, she took time to talk with P. Carl about her new role and the significance of being chief.

A woman looking at the camera
Julie Burros. Photo: City of Boston

P. Carl: First I want to make sure I get your title right. Is it Chief of Arts and Culture?

Julie: Yes, chief. I wanted to be chief (laughing).

Carl: Who doesn’t want to be chief? So first question: why is it so important in your mind to have this position at a cabinet level? It’s a first for Boston. Could you talk about your sense of the significance of this position in this context?

Julie: The significance of it being at the cabinet level is that I have access to all the leadership for the city of Boston, which is really going to foster a kind of deep collaboration—a platform for collaboration among departments so that arts and culture isn’t secluded, off on its own somewhere, but is enmeshed in the work that Boston does, whether it’s planning of veterans affairs, or the office of new Bostonians, or community engagement. It really puts me in very close contact with the other chiefs and basically gives me great access.

When we talk about cultural policy, we are talking about grant making, public art, regulations, historic preservation—all kinds of things that effect the general well-being of the city.

Carl: How many cities do you know that have a position like this at the cabinet level? It that an uncommon or common thing? Is Boston ahead or behind in that regard?

Julie: Different cities use the same words differently, right? Cabinet in Chicago means something very different from the cabinet in Boston. In Chicago, we meet quarterly, not weekly and the cabinet includes every department, every elected board chair, and is about sixty-five people. But I would say it’s pretty common to have an arts commissioner—sometimes it’s part of parks and rec, like in Atlanta, sometimes it’s its own department, sometimes it’s outside of city government. It’s all kinds of different configurations. I’d estimate that the bigger cities in the US, probably the largest twenty-five or thirty cities, have an arts commissioner.

Carl: You have a long history, more than fifteen years of working in cultural planning in the city of Chicago. I wonder if you could talk a bit about what are the real challenges in cultural planning at this scale, and what does success look like at this level?

Julie: One of the most immediate challenges is helping people to understand what are we talking about when we say cultural planning. We are talking about a big vision for arts and culture for the entire city, maybe even the whole region. And so clarity is important. When we talk about cultural policy, we are talking about grant making, public art, regulations, historic preservation—all kinds of things that effect the general well-being of the city.

Carl: I know it’s tempting, to talk about cultural planning and to focus primarily on making a case for the economic impact of the arts, that’s where we often identify success, because we brought people to a neighborhood, or to an event, and it was economically impactful to the city. What are other cases that must be made for the value of the arts in our city?

Julie: I would actually call that the “Richard Florida effect,” because he is an economist, but he so clearly articulated the economic benefits of arts and culture. And that is part of the challenge; I think economic impact has been the go-to because it’s measurable in quantifiable terms, but there’s a whole body of work that’s emerging on trying to measure and quantify the impact of the arts in terms of social well-being. This is an important part of having a healthy city—not only a healthy economy—but also having people who are happy, who are healthy, and who are engaged in democracy, and their community, and have the wherewithal to achieve the things they want to achieve. We find that arts and culture has multitudes of benefits that are in addition to and that are connected to other achievements. There are all kinds of studies—Shirley Brice Heath is probably the most well-known for showing that kids who have arts education achieve higher in all kinds of other academic rankings—so it’s sort of that assist, that helper function, that social sciences are now starting to come up with ways to measure the impact of arts and culture in communities. It’s not as easy as having a pie chart with dollars and cents.

Carl: I think that’s the real challenge, right?—seeing how everybody gets to participate, not just at the level of the quantifiable in the cultural planning experience. In your mind, what is the difference between the role that an arts institution plays in cultural planning versus the role of individuals? At Emerson, we talk a lot about being an institution that tries to be a good citizen of the city of Boston. I am just wondering, what’s the difference between institutions and individuals? And how might we achieve being a good citizen in this process as an institution?

Julie: I really see it as all woven together. I’ve used the term ecosystem before, and I think it’s a helpful metaphor to understand that an institution comprises individuals, and individuals engage with that institution. Large institutions employ lots of creative people who are doing other creative things on the side, the same is true for educational institutions. It’s easy to think of an institution as this building that separates the people from the building, and the product from the people, but I think it’s all deeply woven together. You can’t separate the people from the institutions. The institutions would not exist without the audiences, the supporters, and without the core of people who work there, so for me it’s all deeply woven together, and of course institutions often reflect the leadership, the people, the individuals who are working there, who run them, or who are stewarding them.

Carl: Do institutions by nature get more access to the process? Is it more difficult for individuals to see how to engage? How do you put that in place?

Julie: It’s not easy because the institutions often have very powerful leadership with access to opinion makers and funders. That’s why it is so important when we do a cultural plan and engage in a cultural planning process for me to make myself accessible, to say “here is my email, I want anyone to be able to reach me.” Public engagement means not only in person, because not everyone has the time to come to a public meeting, but public engagement on many different platforms: in person, in community meetings, and people coming together and submitting a report back on what they discussed. Public engagement is really the key for hearing a lot of voices, and even then not everybody is comfortable speaking up. There can be a real inhibition factor—language, access—and so we are going to try very hard to engage people who aren’t comfortable or used to going to public meetings. It’s New England, so I know there’s a tradition of people engaging deeply and publicly, so we hope to take advantage of that tradition.

Carl: The work of HowlRound is to know how to make something accessible to everyone who wants to participate. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how do you create a sense of invitation to the process? We really looked at how institutions were beginning to speak on behalf of artists—too much so. How to make room for artists to speak on behalf of themselves? It’s been a really interesting challenge on our end to create this thing we call a commons, where the process is transparent and accessible. You find people don’t believe that, or they don’t know how to enter it sometimes.

Julie: Or they don’t necessarily trust it! The frank truth is that what we found in Chicago is that at times city government in all different kinds of cities has not had the best track record for building trust among its citizens. Transparency is a very new phenomenon in city government, and so in my long career as a public servant, I have encountered many times where you are innocently coming to a community to discuss something, and you get heaped on with years and years of what came before you. You’ve got a lot of history to work through. I think that’s true all over the place. Before I worked for city government I worked for a consulting firm where we did public meetings in places where we were coming in as outsiders to the community, and you would just get heaped on by people who had so much pent up frustration to vent, to voice how they had been wronged by the municipality. It’s so important to let people be heard and to genuinely listen, and move through what has come before you.

Carl: I have heard you say now a couple of times that this work is ours to do, so I wonder what do you need from us artists, cultural consumers—the people that want to engage this process—what do you need from us to make your work a success?

Julie: One of the things I want to help engender is agency for creative people who want to do their creative thing; that they don’t necessarily need approval, or when they need approval, it’s very easy to come by, but that they feel a sense of agency in terms of achieving what they want to do in their creative endeavors, whether it is as an individual or in their community or with a partner—with organizations, with institutions. That’s one of the really big things, because yes, of course, it’s going to be so important for people to engage with and participate in the cultural plan, but that’s just eighteen months [the cultural planning process] although it’s meant to cover a period of years—near term, mid-term, long-term—a number of years. It isn’t just going to be city government that implements that plan, but all of us who will be implementing the plan. Our hope is that the creatives of the city of Boston will be jumping in and saying “Yes, I want to do this!” or “I want to create that!” and “I want to transform my community in this way,” and the whole point is to help them achieve whatever they might need officially from city government to help them move forward on their own terms, on their own agency. The Office of Arts and Culture is laying pathways for how we can work with other city agencies, how we can work with other public entities to leverage certain assets and resources. It isn’t going to be just city government—that kind of a top-down approach is not sustainable and just doesn’t really work in the twenty-first century.

Carl: Is there a start date for the cultural planning process?

Julie: I don’t have an official start date yet. We’re still working to identify the team who will help us carry out the process. We’re hopeful that in the coming weeks we’ll have figured out our launch date and what exactly we mean when we say launch. We’ve been very thoughtful and deliberate about the word launch. What does it mean? Does it mean a contract to sign? Does it mean web presence is up? Does it mean that the dates for certain plans are set? We’re still figuring that out.

Carl: What examples are there around the country for those of us who want to engage? What can we look at if we want to explore the process and the power of cultural plans? Are there models, maybe beyond Chicago, that we should look to? Bright spots that you’re looking to as you’re thinking about a cultural plan for Boston?

Julie: It’s been really interesting to look at how other cities have approached doing cultural planning—what they’ve done differently, what they’ve done similarly. I’ve got colleagues in Denver, who I’ve known for years, and we’ve always traded best practices. They recently released a cultural plan in Denver and it’s been very interesting to watch that parallel process and how they approached it. And I have a colleague in Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and they did a cultural plan many years ago where one of the implementation pieces was to identify dedicated funding streams for arts and culture. It took them six or seven years and several tries, but they were ultimately successful in instituting a cigarette tax—I don’t know if that would fly here at all—it certainly didn’t fly in Chicago, and I got in trouble for even mentioning it in public meetings, but the point is they had a cultural plan that laid the groundwork, and ultimately they were successful. In Cuyahoga County, Cleveland, that tax raises fifteen million dollars a year, which then they grant out, and it’s been extraordinarily impactful. It would be an extraordinary measure of success to have as a result of our cultural plan a dedicated funding stream that really adequately funded arts and culture. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a city tax, it doesn’t even necessarily have to be a city—the state of California, among other states, has an arts license plate. In California, it raises millions of dollars a year. If you thought about Massachusetts, we could raise several million dollars a year just through that. Where people are really opting in, though, it’s not a tax.

Carl: Final question for you: it feels to me like there is a lot of hype around you coming into town, there’s a lot riding on this position, the expectations of the community are high. What are the risks in your mind of putting such high hopes on one person in one position?

Julie: I’m just really starting to wrap my head around it. There are a lot of expectations and high hopes, and I think a lot of people are rooting for me and are asking, “what can we do to help make you a success?” So the support that I am getting is great! The support from the creative community, from the funding community is great! I think that the risk is to put too much expectation on, not on me necessarily, but on city government. Looking at municipal funding is only one way to look at this issue, which is not only about dollars. To be really clear that, yes, we want to grow the dollars and that is incredibly important, which may take the form of a dedicated funding stream, but it isn’t only going to be about the dollars. It’s going to be about collaboration, and being smart about how we invest our dollars; how we grow the arts ecosystem; how we foster arts education and incentivizing our audience to invest in the arts and culture future of the city of Boston.


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