Boston

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 10, No 2 (Fall 1999)

Ann McQueen

Like program officers everywhere, I spend a lot of time immersed in the minutia that pours from one proposal folder after another. How, then, can I keep my eyes on the big picture? Individual programs are evaluated, of course, but how can my colleagues and I measure the overall health of the city's arts and cultural sector? And what about the rest of the city? Where do the arts and artists fit into the city's economy? Our public school system? Housing? My search for the big picture reminds me of the Gauguin painting at the Museum of Fine Arts which asks “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” This is what I want to know.

As it turned out, answers, or at least a path towards those answers, were being developed just down the hall where Charlotte Kahn, director of the foundation's Boston Community Building Network, has been working with Geeta Pradhan, director of the city's Sustainable Boston project. Together the two of them, along with about 250 or more residents, academics, and community activists, have been developing what they call “indicators of progress, change, and sustainability” for our ever-changing city.

These indicators, or measures, and the data sets that bring them to life are somewhat like the more familiar national economic indicators of employment, productivity, and housing starts. The difference is that sustainability indicators work from a set of value or vision statements to capture Boston's assets and to articulate a sense of where we want to be in the future. The indicators also make new, thought provoking connections between sectors, like housing, public health, and the environment. It is a systems approach that looks, data bit by data bit, at the full ecology of our community.

A review draft of the first iteration of “Boston Indicators of Progress, Change and Sustainability”—the report will be reissued every two years through Boston's 400th birthday in 2030—was released in June. The final 1999 version, to be printed in November, will cover ten major sectors, including civic health, the economy, education, environment, housing, public health, public safety, transportation, and information, technology and media.

Where are the arts? They are covered, along with sports and religious expression, in a section currently called “Heritage: Arts, Culture and Leisure.” The section is still in development—an indication, not of a lack of attention, but of the dearth of basic field work and data in Boston and across the country. With help from Doug DeNatale, director of research at the New England Foundation for the Arts, Maria-Rosario Jackson, project director, and Joaquin Herranz, consultant and research associate, both from Arts and Culture Indicators in Community Building Project at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., and many others, the crucial questions and a structure to answer them are beginning to emerge.

The draft document depicts Boston's vision for its arts, culture, and leisure sector as “a regional and world center of cultural excellence that provides residents with a full range of choices for the expression of cultural heritage, creativity, imagination and faith.” Working from this, it is likely that the indicators will begin with a matrix measuring “vibrant expressions of cultural practice in community life” by cultural groupings such as Cape Verdean, Irish, and Russian, as well as the gay/lesbian and deaf cultures.

While making distinctions according to of cultural identity is almost inherently political and can get very sticky, the consensus is that our community's cultural realities are aligned with its demographics. These realities will be brought to the surface since the matrix will describe how a new or emerging group first develops the resources to practice and express its cultural identity (by establishing places to gather and to worship), then acquires ways to express itself to the larger community (through public festivals or murals, for instance), and can ultimately shape the terrain of the city (through major cultural institutions and public art).

Subsequent sections will track access to opportunities for appreciating art and for active participation in art making. Access to leisure activities and spiritual expression is also part of the work. Eventually, specific measures will follow, though it will have to be acknowledged that, in many cases, a way to collect specific data is not yet available.

Other topics will be addressed through cross referencing throughout the book. Artists' live/work space is currently a hot topic in Boston, but this, along with affordable housing for elders and those living with HIV will probably be part of the housing chapter. The economic impact of arts, culture and leisure—one area where significant quantitative date does exist—will remain in the heritage chapter.

Boston is not alone in its work to develop a comprehensive set of neighborhood indicators. Our city's work is part of an evolving national dialogue prompted by the Urban Institute's National Neighborhood Indicators Project with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Participating along with Boston are foundations and nonprofits in Atlanta, Cleveland, Denver, Oakland, Providence, and Washington, DC. Most are also engaged in developing arts and culture indicators.

I don't know how other cities are faring with their projects, but Boston's many meetings and focus groups remind me of something a leader of one of our arts organizations once said about working with communities: “It's hard work, and very, very messy—but it's worth it!”