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Massachusetts is a National Leader in Protecting Cultural Assets

Anita Walker, Executive Director

Old North Church, Boston
Old North Church, Boston

A powerful argument for robust public investment in arts and culture has been made this week, albeit unintentionally, with a recent high-profile suggestion that cultural sites in the Middle East could be in potential danger. Major media outlets worldwide reacted with international outrage, while here in America cultural organizations and advocacy groups mobilized to remind us all why arts and culture are to be cherished and protected.

Philip Kennicott wrote in the Washington Post, “And it’s not just a line determined by international law or conventions on the preservation of culture. It is about the soul of a culture or a people, their inmost essence, their fundamental values.” In the New York Times, a former Army platoon leader is quoted as saying, “Destroying some of these culturally significant Iranian sites wouldn’t be seen as just an attack against the regime in Tehran, it could be construed as an attack on history and humanity.”

We’ve seen the destruction of irreplaceable antiquities in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Afghanistan over the last two decades and we mourned the loss. But there is much less outrage over the slow, silent and inevitable loss of our own nation’s cultural treasures that have become victims, not of war and violence, but of our own neglect.

Massachusetts is home to countless irreplaceable historic sites and cultural treasures that are the story of our democracy and the footprints of the people who came before us. People travel here from all over the world to walk through Boston’s Old North Church and the Paul Revere House. They can imagine the lives of African Americans escaping slavery on the underground railroad at the Jackson Homestead and Museum in Newton or the Fitch-Hoose House in Dalton. They can know the story of pain and persecution of the Wampanoag people on Aquinnah because of the truthful story told in the Visitor’s Center there.

While most of us relaxed and celebrated over the December holidays, hundreds of cultural leaders across Massachusetts were burning the midnight oil, putting the finishing touches applications for state support to care for our cultural assets. For more than a dozen consecutive years, the Commonwealth is the only state making a consistent and substantial investment in our cultural infrastructure, prioritizing the maintenance and state of good repair of the cultural sites and buildings that are our collective story.

This year, the Mass Cultural Council will invest another 10 million dollars to defeat the decay that so often claims this physical American memory. Since the Cultural Facilities Fund was created by the state Legislature 13 years ago we have invested $119 million in nearly 1,000 projects. This state support has leveraged more than $2.2 billion in private investment. Most of the work is not glamorous: it addresses deferred maintenance, leaky roofs, inefficient HVAC, rotting windows, accessibility, and fire suppression. Yet, this state support is critical. We’ve been told time and again that without the resources and leverage of the Cultural Facilities Fund, a great many of these projects would not have been completed.

It is frightening to think that our cultural treasures could be weaponized to become another tool and casualty of war. Public outrage will prevent that.

And only public support will assure that the invisible threat of neglect and inevitable decay will be defeated and our fragile cultural resources that remind us of our enduring cultural legacy will be here for the next generation. To be respected. And protected.

The application period for this round of Cultural Facilities Fund grant assistance closes at 5pm this Friday, January 10.  Program staff anticipates a robust round, with upwards of 150 proposals expected. Awards will be announced in June.

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