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A Letter to the Cultural Sector and Its Supporters

Michael J. Bobbitt, Executive Director

Michael J. Bobbitt and Sang Bobbitt Hanna visiting the Ecotarium where they were Community Curators.

A placard at the Ecotarium marking Michael and his son, Sang, as Community Curators.

Today marks two special occasions for me.

My one-year anniversary as the Executive Director of Mass Cultural Council and the first day of the Lunar New Year.

In my family, we celebrate this. Some of you may remember that my 20-year-old son, Sang, was adopted from Vietnam when he was 8 months old.  We have always celebrated the Vietnamese holidays. In the Vietnamese culture, the Lunar New Year is also known as Tết, short for Tết Nguyên Đán.  This holiday – the “Festival of the First Morning of the First Day” –  is my favorite of the Vietnamese holidays because it is such a celebration of culture. We enjoyed visiting his friends who were adopted from his orphanage, exchanging New Year’s greetings, giving out lucky money, and enjoying incredible food. Because the Lunar New Year is a holiday celebrated by both the Chinese and Vietnamese, my son and I would often celebrate both.

Sang’s favorite thing was the Chinese Lion Dances, so much so, that this was his life’s aspiration and he spent hours and hours practicing with his DVDs at home. His love of this art extended out into the streets of our neighborhood in suburban Maryland, where we often performed in our very own Tết parades. I was almost always the back end of the Lion and I still deal with back problems from that. My son’s desire to share part of his culture with our neighbors and his friends was so moving. Through him, I have become obsessed with experiencing the joys, wonders, love, traditions, and especially the art of other cultures – revering the uniqueness. This, in turn, helped me to develop more pride for my own culture which had subsided to assimilate and feel safe.

One of the messages of Tết is to “forget about the trouble of the past year and hope for a better and happier upcoming year.” Hmmm…this seems impossible, given the compounding issues facing our sector, our lives, our bodies, and our minds. But I think it’s worth a try AND I think our best remedy to the intensity of these compounding issues is to surround ourselves with art and culture and those who make it. Participating in art and culture is the solution.

We know how culture – the arts, humanities, and interpretive sciences – benefits our lives:

  • It expands our minds to the creative process – generating new ideas and content in our workforce.
  • It has a huge and well-documented economic impact.
  • It makes our communities, regions, and the Commonwealth, a more competitive place to live, work, learn, build, and visit.
  • It brings us together.
  • It generates empathy.
  • It changes minds.
  • It documents and connects us to the past.
  • And it helps to heal in a time of crisis.

The arts can do ALL of this. ALL of this. There is no other sector that can make this claim. Imagine a year, a month, a week, or even a day without it.  Ew…no thank you. So as we try to heed the spirit of Tết, let’s remind ourselves that we already have the tools to do it.

I’ve had so many incredible moments this year with the Mass Cultural Council team – launching our first-ever Racial Equity Plan, visiting several regions and organizations, advocating for an increase in our annual state appropriation, and working with you all to secure a historic $60.1M investment from the Commonwealth’s ARPA COVID relief plan. But what has been most incredible is connecting with cultural workers, staff, Council members, legislators, arts and cultural leaders to talk about the work and devise possible solutions – thinking anew about solutions that we hadn’t considered in the past. I can’t do my job well unless I hear from you and talk to you.

What I find gratifying about this work is the chance to be outside of creative “rooms” helping to make those “rooms” happen. It’s the thing that wakes me up every day. I’ve been there as both an artist and an institutional producer of art which helps me approach the Agency’s work with a visceral empathy and slight obsession of the work that you do.

Michael Bobbitt, Steve Miller, and Sang Bobbitt Hanna sitting in Symphony Hall.
At a BSO concert with the family.

A few memorable moments out of literally thousands:

  • Touring a spooky, old, abandoned middle school being converted to artist housing in Fitchburg;
  • Seeing Santa with Sang at the Boston Pops and screaming like a toddler;
  • Learning about whaling at the Nantucket Whaling Museum;
  • Going back to the Plimoth Patuxet where Sang lost his Sharkboy action figure when he was 8;
  • Crying as I got up close to the Norman Rockwell Museum’s Ruby Bridges painting and remembering the awesome project I worked on at the Smithsonian about Ruby;
  • Dining with my husband, Steve, at the Little Saigon Inaugural Gala;
  • Overlooking the cliffs in the Aquinnah Cultural District with my mom, who is very afraid of heights;
  • Touring the Worcester EcoTarium’s taxidermy collection with Sang, my collegiate environmental scientist;
  • Showing my husband archival video of me performing at Jacobs Pillow; and
  • Attending an impromptu solo performance by Yo-Yo Ma at an outdoor reception for Gail Samuels.

With all my visits, several things have overwhelmed me about the Commonwealth’s cultural sector:

  • The Commonwealth is the birthplace of numerous art forms and some of historic America’s most profound, renown, and prolific artists.
  • Native American and folk art traditions across the Commonwealth are alive and continuous.
  • Incredible multicultural art all over the Commonwealth is healing communities and bringing them together.
  • The Commonwealth is filled with so many firsts, longest-running, and premiere institutions.

The cultural sector in Massachusetts is unique in the nation, and it should all be consumed, uplifted, and supported more. #GrantsMatter. I hope to impress this more to our legislators, philanthropists, residents, and visitors. Let’s ‘double down’ on our bragging to the world about what we have in Massachusetts. It’s all here.

As I reflect on the spirit of Tết and forget about the trouble of last year and hope for a better new year, I look forward to celebrating my son’s 21st birthday, my 50th birthday, finally getting to go on my honeymoon with Steve, engaging with the sector to build Mass Cultural Council’s next strategic plan, investing $60M into the sector for pandemic recovery, and hitting the road – tripling my mileage to visit more of the Commonwealth’s cultural sector. Thank you for partnering with me.

Happy New Year and as I’ve learned from my Vietnamese friends – Chúc Mừng Năm Mới,

Michael J. Bobbitt
Mass Cultural Council, Executive Director

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