Power of Culture Blog
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A couple of weeks ago I stopped by the JFK Library and Museum to take a look at the new Legacy Gallery, supported by the Cultural Facilities Fund.
It’s a relatively small space, a beacon of light coming out of the exhibition on the dark days of Kennedy’s assassination. Yet it’s remarkable to see the breadth of accomplishments this President achieved in his short time in office.
The Legacy Gallery is less a display of objects and more of ideas: innovation, inclusion, public service, global citizenship, and the arts.
Today we are celebrating a new budget. This is the Commonwealth’s investment, through the Mass Cultural Council, in innovation, inclusion, public service, global citizenship, and the arts.
We are over the moon with joy that our elected leaders saw fit to substantially increase the financial resources available for this work by $2 million to a total of $18 million.
Every year we ask you to contact your legislator, contact the Governor, advocate, make the case, tell real stories from your community. Thank you for that. The dollars say you were heard. Your legislators can feel the vitality of a creative Main Street. They know a young neighbor who is safe and engaged in a summer arts or science program. They have a friend who works for a living as an artist or curator at the local museum. They realize that our cultural organizations are providing essential elements of a well-rounded, top-notch education that nurtures innovative, creative minds. They know that the arts and culture serve as the welcome mat for new residents who have come from around the world and choose Massachusetts as their home. And they know that we are the first line of defense against prejudice and hate. You may tire of our call to advocacy action every year, but there was a time when making the case for the arts and culture to elected officials was only a dream.
As I explored the legacy of John F. Kennedy, I thought about what it was like when that legacy was a list of ideas and dreams. Space travel? If you were a child of the 50’s that was the stuff of comic books and fantasy. We’re going to land on the moon?! Well, we all watched on black and white TV when it happened.
Right next to a piece of moon rock in the space portion of the Legacy Gallery is the story of another dream, a bold idea, a fantasy: public funding of the arts. This had always been the province of patrons, generous people of wealth who supported the stewardship of our collective history and the development of great artists.
But Kennedy saw the arts and culture as belonging to all Americans. He saw them as “the deepest sources of our national strength,” as he put it in an address honoring the poet Robert Frost at Amherst College in October 1963. In that speech he called on the nation to “enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.” As the state agency that invests public funding on behalf of our citizens you might ask us how well we are responding to our native son’s call. Or better yet, you might say, Anita, since you like to quote John F. Kennedy all the time how are you walking his talk?
Well, in the past 12 years since I assumed this post, together we’ve increased the state investment by 80%, not counting the Cultural Facilities Fund. Here’s what we’ve done:
In FY07, we awarded 905 grants. This past year we awarded 2,152 grants. The number of cities and towns reached by our investments more than doubled, from 123 to 267. This is in addition to funding for Local Cultural Councils. The number of grants to individual artists through our Artist Fellowships also doubled from 33 to 67.
Twelve years ago, we made 40 grants to schools. Last year we made 845. In FY07 those grants reached just 33 school districts. Last year 282 districts benefited from Mass Cultural Council funding.
This year new funding will enable us to increase critical operating support to nearly 400 arts, humanities, and science organizations by 20%, boost allocations to all 329 Local Cultural Councils and support an additional 45 schools through our STARS Residencies program.
At Amherst, that October day in 1963, President Kennedy spoke not only about dreams. He recognized a condition that was prevalent then and continues to devastate families and communities in Massachusetts today. He spoke of despair. He quoted Robert Frost: “I have been one acquainted with the night.”
Far too many are acquainted with the night, living in darkness. Social isolation, loneliness, a lack of meaning or sense of usefulness have infected too many of our friends and neighbors, leading to drug abuse or even suicide. As Frost describes it, “the fate of having nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.”
This is a health crisis.
This year we will launch a new initiative that focuses the power of culture on the health and well-being of the people of Massachusetts. We are partnering with the Health Connector to connect hundreds of thousands of families, young adults and new immigrant residents with cultural experiences. We will also pilot new partnerships with community health centers to provide doctors with the opportunity to write prescriptions for an art, dance or poetry class, a trip to a museum or a nature walk. The arts and culture certainly won’t replace necessary medical intervention, but they can do something the most powerful pill cannot. They can ignite the human spirit.
As I’ve talked about this health initiative around the office, I’ve referred to it as OUR moon shot: doctors prescribing the arts and culture and getting insurance companies to pay for it. Is this just a dream, a bold idea, a fantasy? Sure. But that doesn’t mean we won’t get there. Let’s take the road less traveled by. Let’s do it together. That will make all the difference.