A bright future for the arts in Medford
By Gary Roberts
Published in CACHE Arts section of the Medford Transcript, March 25, 2016
The past year was a great one for arts and culture in Medford, and the Medford Arts Council has been fortunate to be a part of that. In 2016, Medford can do even more.
The Arts Council, for example, is continuing to look for ways to have more impact and influence, to improve our communications, and to strengthen our grant program. We are planning some new initiatives for public art to beautify the city.
The community has been involved as never before in generating ideas and having conversations about the future. As a result, we are learning a lot about how arts and culture could be used to make Medford an even more attractive, stimulating and equitable city.
While we cannot yet know how things will turn out, I believe the trends are definitely going in the right direction.
Here are a few notable developments, among many others, that you may have heard about.
In December, Mayor Stephanie M. Burke convened a transition team to help develop some priorities for the new administration, and she designated “cultural affairs and recreation” as one of the four principal areas of focus.
I was pleased to represent the Medford Arts Council in this effort, and am proud of the work that our subcommittee did to identify concrete recommendations for arts and recreation that would benefit the entire community.
The report we submitted also took some first steps towards defining a larger inclusive vision for what could be done in Medford with a new level of leadership, support and funding from the city.
For its own work in 2015, the Medford Arts Council was recently chosen as the “Council of the Year,” becoming just the third group ever selected for this honor by the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC).
We were recognized for our sound administration of the grant program, our extensive community engagement, and our successful advocacy for the arts.
As MCC Executive Director Anita Walker said in announcing the award: “Medford has asserted itself as a regional leader in public support for the arts over the past several years. And the Medford Arts Council has been central to that effort.”
How did we get to this moment of recognition, and where are we going next?
For most of its history, starting with its establishment in 1980, the Medford Arts Council relied on state funding and occasional donations.
Recently, the city of Medford has started to contribute additional funds to support our grantmaking and other activities.
It is no understatement to say these allocations from the city have had a transformative effect. The investments make all the difference in our ability to do more for Medford’s residents.
Last May, the City Council passed a unanimous resolution recommending our budget from the city be increased by 100 percent.
Mayor Michael J. McGlynn responded in kind by allocating $30,000 for our activities in 2016. The increase marked the third year in a row that the city contributed funding directly to the Medford Arts Council in recognition of the good stewardship that we have shown and the many community benefits that our grantmaking provides.
As a result, we were able to award $45,300 in grants this year — our highest total amount since 2002! A total of 62 proposals were funded, and the average grant size increased by 35 percent over the previous year.
Our state allocation also increased this past year by almost 10 percent. This was a result of the increased MCC budget negotiated following widespread public advocacy demanding a larger appropriation for arts and culture in the Commonwealth’s budget.
Consequently, our 2016 allocation from the MCC crossed a threshold of $20,000 that introduces some new requirements for the Medford Arts Council.
Specifically, we must now develop and announce “Local Priorities” to be used in our decision making about which grant applications to fund. This is an exciting development for Medford, because the Arts Council can direct its marketing and community engagement in ways that will help encourage proposals for particular kinds of projects to serve local needs and interests
We are in the process of reflecting on the tremendous amount of community input we have gathered in recent months. By design this input will shape the Local Priorities for the next grant cycle and also guide us in how best to invest the city’s supplemental funding.
Stay tuned, because we will be announcing these priorities later this spring!
Recognizing that we needed more information about trends in Medford, we set out to understand better the constraints in which we have been working and the outcomes of our grantmaking.
We analyzed our history over the last 18 years, and learned some significant new information about the gaps and shortfalls in funding, which demographic groups have been served by funded proposals, and how various cultural disciplines such as music, theater, and dance have fared.
We published this analysis as a report called “Funding Matters,” which is available on our website. The report contains a lot more information than can be shared now, so I will highlight only one finding.
Going back to the end of the last century, the Medford Arts Council has not been able to meet even half of the total demand for funding dollars that the community has requested for its programs.
The average annual shortfall through 2015 has been about $34,000. One implication of this finding is that every dollar available to us is important, and municipal support can play a critical role in closing the funding gap.
Many of us believe that, with increased support and coordination, there is incredible potential to create an even more vibrant arts and culture scene in Medford.
To help surface what that potential might look like, we convened the city’s first Arts and Culture Summit, which took place in the council chambers in City Hall in November.
This forum brought together more than 70 interested individuals and community stakeholders, who represented more than 40 local organizations, for a collaborative visioning process focused on the arts, humanities, and creative economy.
We invited participants to consider new possibilities using four themes — what we called “the 4 P’s” of partnerships, participation, public awareness and public arts.
Happily, the summit confirmed what we often see and hear in our work. The group discussions were energetic and ambitious.
There is tremendous interest in Medford right now to try new things. Expectations are high, and many residents are eager to get involved. This is encouraging because a lot of work remains to be done.
As a way to define where we should focus our efforts, we conducted a 10-question online survey, which ran for several months and garnered 144 responses.
The survey provided important data about community needs and interests. Using these data together with input gathered at the Arts and Culture Summit as well as through numerous conversations with local organizations, we are starting to develop insights that can help Medford’s cultural groups in their work.
The input could also be used by all of us to invest more productively in the local creative economy.
We learned, for example, that the public is very enthusiastic about large-scale cultural events such as West Medford Open Studios and the Circle the Square summer series. Since our grants help to fund these recurring events, we make a point of being present at them to contribute our efforts to their success.
While we know first-hand how great they are, our survey told us these events are also clear favorites among respondents, who indicated how much they appreciate their fun, interactive and community-building qualities.
How to sustain, evolve, and learn from such popular programs will be key to introducing new kinds of festivals and fairs, which are much in demand here.
The public also wants to see more public art in Medford. In a survey question asking for input on desired programs, 71 percent of respondents indicated that there should be more “public art such as murals, sculptures, or other installations in open spaces.”
This was the highest score among all possible answers, followed closely by “live music performances” at 69 percent and “arts festivals” at 60 percent.
What these results suggest is that we enjoy coming together to experience new arts and culture activities, and are looking for more opportunities to do so in Medford.
It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that when we asked you to identify the most important issues related to arts and culture in the city, the number one response by far was revitalization of Medford Square and the other business districts.
This issue was selected by 61 percent of survey respondents, and came in 20 points higher than the second ranked issue — state and local funding for the arts, at 41 percent.
By choosing revitalization and funding from among ten possible answers, the community made a strong connection between support for local arts and the vibrancy of our neighborhoods and squares.
Most of us understand that there are mutually reinforcing economic and social benefits that come from investing in cultural programs and infrastructure. Now we are collecting evidence that backs up our anecdotal experiences.
It is worth pointing out that the third-ranked issue was how to find out about events and programs, which was indicated by 39 percent of respondents.
People are looking for things to do and for information that will help guide them towards an interesting talk, a fun night out, or a meet-up for creators of many kinds.
We should continue to think imaginatively and strategically about how we can increase the options and improve access.
Taken together, these results allow us to consider more deeply the range of opportunities that exist to make some interesting and distinctive things happen.
To this end, it was certainly helpful and gratifying to see that 75 percent of everyone who took our survey elected to answer an optional question about where specifically in Medford they would like to see public art.
We are now compiling the responses and will soon begin to evaluate which of the preferred sites might be viable homes for new temporary or permanent installations that activate open spaces.
It is our hope that the strongly favorable community response thus far will help us navigate the approval process that will be needed to bring new public art into the city’s parks, playgrounds, and public buildings.
One component of the Arts Council’s contribution to this process is a new collaboration with Tufts University, specifically the creation of our first internship opportunity.
Through this arrangement, we have been working with a talented undergraduate student to research best practices in municipal policies for public art. Her work will then become part of the community’s knowledge about how to realize our collective aspiration for public art.
We are looking forward to developing this initial research into some sound policy recommendations that can be useful to the city if it chooses to embrace a public art program.
It should be recalled that Medford’s 2011 Open Space and Recreation Plan calls for the inclusion of public art in the city’s parks and open spaces, so we already have a community-vetted document to support a strategic response and investment.
Public art is just one of several ways that we can enhance the experience of living, working, and studying in Medford.
We, on the Medford Arts Council, are incredibly excited about opportunity to work with the city to keep the momentum going and introduce new arts and cultural activities — such as artistically painted crosswalks — in the community.
We encourage everyone to share their ideas, attend local programs, and support our creative economy. In doing so, we will likely have many more great years for art and culture to look forward to.