Mayor Michelle Wu’s vision for the arts in Boston
In the first year of the pandemic, Massachusetts’ arts and culture sector took a $588 million hit. For Greater Boston, that means arts organizations lost a total of $423 million and individual artists lost nearly $13 million.
As a mayoral candidate, Michelle Wu has developed a comprehensive plan to help the arts and culture sector recover. This included everything from bolstering Boston’s artist residency programs to reforming the city’s Payment In Lieu of Tax (PILOT) program, which asks tax-exempt organizations – universities, hospitals and institutions cultural non-profit – to make voluntary payments to the city.
Wu also highlighted what the arts meant to her personally. Her campaign website states, “Growing up, the arts were central to Michelle’s immigrant family, rooting her in culture, heritage and community.”
Now that Wu has recently celebrated his first 100 days in office and arts and culture venues are reopening, GBH’s executive arts editor Jared Bowen visited the mayor at City Hall to talk about his commitment to the arts and culture sector. One thing that immediately stood out was an upright Yamaha. A classically trained pianist, Wu had the city-owned piano move into his office right after his inauguration.
From the piano, Wu says it grounded her. “When my parents first came to this country, they didn’t speak English very well,” she said. “Music was how they could still feel connected to the community here, despite language barriers, despite other cultural barriers. Music transcended everything. I’ve been playing the piano since I was four or five years old, and it was a source of comfort, a source of strength, a source of self-discovery.
The role that arts and culture have played in Wu’s life is something she wants to be central to Boston life. [The arts] “These are not just how we hope to connect with each other and heal after two such difficult years, they are also going to be central and key to our economic recovery.”
According to Wu, Boston can also use the arts and culture sector to pave the way for this post-pandemic recovery. “We’re going to be the city you can’t miss. You need to be here to enjoy the shows and see the public art and to enjoy our restaurants and cultural scene. It’s key to bringing people back and making sure we can continue to build that foundation of what it means to be a creative, dense, welcoming and inclusive city,” she said.
However, for the city’s artistic and cultural community to thrive, artists must also thrive. Affordable housing and a lack of studio space remain a challenge for artists wishing to stay in a city whose skyline is dominated by cranes and brand new skyscrapers.
Wu says development in Boston shouldn’t come at the expense of the creative community. “Our growth as a city should provide the same mechanisms and the same support to be able to build artistic facilities, spaces and resources directly into this,” she said. “With every new building that goes up, there needs to be a conversation about what the contribution to our cultural fabric is too. Many of our neighborhoods that represent such treasures are in great danger. Not only arts organizations could be lost , but also major cultural institutions.
When Wu was running for mayor, she played the piano before the debates to clear her head. Today, when she sits at the piano, her office overlooks the city of which she is now mayor.
“It’s shocking to remember what life was like when I started piano lessons, how my parents felt left out and excluded from so many systems,” she said. “We could never have imagined that one day I would be involved in government.”
Reflecting on his years of practice and performance, Wu says “with music, when you look at those notes that someone else brought to life hundreds of years ago, you can always bring a little bit of it, bring a bit of that spirit that they were trying to convey right now to match how you feel,” she said. “It’s amazing, that feeling of meeting people where they are — transcending language and time and all the other ways we are divided. That’s what I hope the city of Boston can represent too.”