David De Celis, of the Cambridge Public Art Commission, speaks at a February meeting of Mayor’s Arts Task Force. Michael Monestime, Ben Simon and Afiyah Harrigan listen. (Image: The Loop Lab via Vimeo)

A director of arts and culture position will be created to help stem the loss of creative institutions such as the EMF music building and Green Street Studios dance community, city councillors decided Monday in a unanimous vote.

“It’s become very apparent that we need somebody in the city administration – and at a high level – who’s doing this kind of critical work to connect our arts organizations that exist here, especially in the [Central Square] Cultural District, and ensure that we do not continue to have these arts organizations leave,” councillor Alanna Mallon said.

Mallon

The person appointed eventually as director of arts and culture will prioritize some 70 recommendations that came out of a nine-month Mayor’s Arts Task Force led by Mallon. While many of the recommendations in its July wrap-up report focus on such things as writing zoning that encourages and protects the arts and streamlining permitting processes, overall there was a call for $2 million in additional arts funding for the fiscal year; a director would oversee those funds.

The task force process was bookended by losses – sparked by 200 musicians and artists being ousted from the EMF building by a developer of office space, and with the call for a director coming just days after news that the Green Streets Studios community was being forced out by a tripling of rent by the buyer of the building where it’s been at home for 28 years. Both were part of the arts community in Central Square, designated a “cultural district” in 2012 but struggling ever since to live up to the honor.

“There could be more [closings] coming,” Mallon said.

The City Manager’s Office is asked to report back to the City Council before the end of this calendar year about creating the position. Mallon’s order was co-sponsored by Mayor Marc McGovern and councillors Quinton Zondervan and E. Denise Simmons.

Skepticism over process, outcome

Ben Simon, a musician who decided to run for a City Council seat after being displaced by the closing of the EMF building, doubted the new director position would be effective in keeping the arts alive in Cambridge. He felt those doubts even while serving on the task force, he said.

The disappearance of art and artists from Cambridge results from wealthy developers and land owners setting the agenda for city government, he said. “The roots of the problem are gentrification,” Simon said Tuesday. “If we’re talking about anything less, it’s just PR.”

He struggled to get that topic on the task force agenda, though, which he said confirmed the skepticism he and others in the EMF community felt going into the process. “This sounds like,  let’s do something to make it seem like we’re doing something,” he said.

Councillor Jan Devereux agreed Monday that the appointment of a director – which she supported – didn’t get at the most pressing problem: Spaces such as EMF or Green Street being lost to development and rent increases. “Until we’re able to step up and acquire real estate or figure out a way to fund rents or stabilize rents, we’re going to keep losing the organizations,” Devereux said.

Emerging question

Boston went through a similar arts task force process, resulting in the hiring of a director of arts and culture and a “Boston Creates” report, though Boston’s version was both bigger and more obviously flawed, seemingly creating as many questions as it answered.

The biggest question emerging Monday was how the new director would fit in with the existing Arts Council and its staff and director, Jason Weeks – who sat on the task force that created the proposal for a director. In many communities, Mallon noted, arts councils put on community events such as open studios and give out small grants, while a director of arts and culture is “really doing that overarching look and making sure that we’re directing our resources and energy correctly.”

In Cambridge “the Arts Council would continue functioning as normal, as they are now, because they’re doing a tremendous job,” Mallon said. The new director would “serve as a liaison to the local arts community and really be equipped with the resources to respond to the concerns of displacement … making sure that we’re doing that deep work in the arts communities so that they’re feeling supported.”

In addition, the director would ensure all of the city’s diverse cultures are celebrated.

“We’ve been saying for a long time that Cambridge has been doing a great job curating its innovation economy, while at the same time not doing a great job curating and supporting our creative economy. And those things go hand in hand. It’s time that we really start supporting our creative economy, stopping the displacement and, and I think really signaling to the arts community that we’re serious about supporting it and serious about making Cambridge a place where artists and arts organizations can not only survive” but thrive, Mallon said. “I’ll tell you, I went to the EMF building, I went to Green Street Studios. And these are organizations that were just surviving. We need organizations that can thrive here in Cambridge, and I think that this position will be the one that will help arts organizations thrive and make sure that our diverse community of of all the cultures feel that they have events that reflect them.”