Arts & Culture, Interview

Systematic and Deliberate: How Julie Burros is reshaping the relationship between art and government


Mayor Marty Walsh brought Julie Burros in from Chicago at the beginning of this year to head the newly created Arts and Culture Department. Her goal: make sure everyone sees Boston as the vibrant, artistic city we know it to be, and not just a snowbank full of sports-related inferiority complexes.

I sat down with Burros a few weeks ago to talk about grants, public art, and the difference between city government and the art world.


BH: Is Boston very different from Chicago? Are you doing the same job, a similar job?

JB: Similar job, just a different kind of agency. You know, there are some similarities. Municipal government is municipal government, so a lot of similarities in terms of that setting. But I would say there are a lot of differences between the two cities.

I always ask if people in Boston are from Boston, and a lot of people are not from Boston. And there are people in Chicago who are not from Chicago, but they’re mostly from the Midwest. What I’ve discovered is that a lot of people in Boston came to school in Boston and stayed. I probably haven’t met as many younger people, but I would say this is certainly true of people in the Boomer demographic.

I haven’t been in Boston very long, so that certainly applies to me. But people who have been around Boston longer have told me that Mayor Walsh’s administration has a stronger emphasis on the arts than the previous mayor did. Is that your sense? Why do you think that might be?

Yeah, I think that is definitely the case, that the new administration has a stronger emphasis on the arts. The fact that my job was created, and that my department was split from the Events Office specifically so the arts could get more of a focus and more dedicated attention from a department head. The way they constructed the cabinet, to include both the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture and the Library [Boston Public Library], it really shows that there is more focus.

From my understanding, it’s the mayor’s vision to be what he calls a “thriving, healthy, and innovative city,” that you need to have the arts as part of that. Not as separate, but an incorporated part of what we do in healing, in innovation, in education, and so that was a lot of the rationale for elevating this job to be at the cabinet level, so that we could be very intentional leveraging the arts for progress and civic advancement, no matter what we were talking about. Whether we were talking about public works, or public schools, or public spaces, there would be that integration and that kind of cross-sector collaboration. So he just really sees myself as part of the vision for moving Boston forward.

Forward to what? Is there an end vision?

To be, well he calls it, the mayor talks about being a ‘municipal arts leader,’ and being known for the arts. We’re known for some of our arts and culture, in some sectors. But when people think about Boston, arts and culture isn’t necessarily the first, or second, or third, or even the fifth thing that comes to mind. And so that’s part of the goal, to change our image.

But it really is for the city of Boston to have a stronger economy, healthier, happier people, more resilient, better able to bounce back from setbacks.

What would make Boston a ‘municipal arts leader?’

We’ve been discussing this question a lot, what would constitute a city that’s considered an arts leader. Having a Cultural Plan, which guides our investment and guides the support that government is putting towards arts and culture is part of that. A cultural plan helps to give a focus and a strategy, and helps prioritize what we focus on in terms of building up the arts sector and supporting the arts sector. So a cultural plan is part of the equation.

Being more intentional in our work is a part of the equation, so we don’t leave it to accident that there’s a sculpture or a statue or a public work. We should plan for it; build it into the budget, so it’s a part of our thinking with public spaces and public buildings.

The mayor, in his first term, doubled the grant making budget for Arts and Culture. In the past, the department would just give grants through the Boston Cultural Council. We would basically just be a pass-through for Massachusetts Cultural Council funding. And so the investment was rather stable, I would say. It didn’t grow. Mayor Walsh committed matching funds, so in his first year he doubled the grants budget. And then this fiscal year, he increased the city match by 100% so we’ve got another $150,000 towards the Boston Cultural Council grant fund.

What happens with those grant dollars? What are they for?

In the past there had been one grant cycle for organizations. That grant is still there. The grant cycle just opened up, on September 1. Applications are due on October 15. These are for organizations, but groups of artists can apply with a fiscal sponsor. We’ve changed the guidelines a little bit his year. It’s all on our website, We’ve changed the guidelines a little bit to allow nonprofits that are not primarily cultural organizations but who want to propose a cultural program, to submit a grant. So that’s a small change, but it’s significant because it recognizes the role of community development organizations, main street organizations, social service organizations, which do arts programs. Now they’ll be eligible to submit proposals.

We are planning another round of grants for artists. We’re still working with our cultural council to shape that, but we’re anticipating that would be in early 2016. We’re sort of carving out a piece of the increase in our grants budget to be focused on artists exclusively.

What does that do? Why is granting to artists different from granting to organizations?

It helps support the work of an individual. There are very few sources of grant dollars for individual artists in Boston. Very few. We’re still shaping it, we’re still looking at what it could be, but it’s probably a way to purchase materials, finish a project, start a project, do a collaboration, create new works, all that kind of thing.

For a lot of artists, it takes time to develop your voice. It’s kind of like investing in R&D, you know that idea of development, the maturation of thinking about a creative project. So you can really think of it in terms of venture capital for culture. I’m particularly interested in supporting the creation of new works, in any genre. Whether it’s poetry or visual art or music or a written work of some sort.

So the funding for individual artists is a piece you think that was missing in Boston. What other holes do you see?

I think arts leadership. That there is someone in my role, in my position that is able to pull together disparate interests and disparate groups who maybe are natural partners, but wouldn’t naturally be around a table together, talking together.

We’ve seen a lot of that kind of impulse generated from the focus groups that we’ve held for Boston Creates. We bring together a focus group of people in a particular neighborhood or a particular industry, and even around the table at that focus group, people are seeing value in talking together, in meeting together. They want to continue to be convened, and we really see a role for the city in being the convener. Being a leader in that way, helping to pull together those people and make connections in a way that wouldn’t ordinarily happen.


I read this piece in the Chicago Tribune, where you said government and regulation is sort of the culture of ‘no’, and art is the culture of ‘yes.’ Is that playing out in the same way in Boston?

It’s very different. I would say the regulatory climate, the regulatory climate is quite different. But yes, it’s quite true that the city is often looking at anything within the framework of ‘Is it allowed? Is it not allowed?’ and the truth is that many creative endeavors don’t even, there isn’t even a category that you would check for it. But I do want to caution that it is really, really different here in terms of he specific regulations and the specific hurdles.

What’s different is in Chicago, the department I was at was not really in a regulatory position until very recently with event permits. It was always other departments permitting art. It’s quite different here, because my staff at the Boston Art Commission is the ones issuing permits for public art. In Chicago, there wasn’t even a permit process for public art. So in some ways, it’s a little bit more articulated and a little bit more formal here, although I would say we are working on making it simpler and more understandable.

So the particulars are very different, but yes. In terms of arts and culture, we want to focus much more on how we make it happen versus why it can’t happen or isn’t happening. We’ve met with Public Works, we’ve been deeply engaging with them as a partner. There’s been some incorporation of art in public works in an ad hoc and opportunistic way, but we’re talking about how to make it systematic and deliberate. Even when you might think that the public way is very narrow, or there isn’t the space for a sculpture in that intersection, in that square. Well, let’s not be locked into the thinking about sculptures and visual art. Let’s bring an artist on board and let the artist think about how we could incorporate art. The more restrictions you have, the more creative they’re going to get.

And it doesn’t have to be about the traditional approaches they’ve taken in the past. Maybe public art as part of Public Works is poetry, is music, is sound and light, and isn’t a sculpture. Then we can start to be more innovative and think about how can we make it happen, what’s possible, what’s the creative approach, versus ‘Oh there’s not space for a sculpture, so we’re not going to do it.’ That’s a whole different mindset, and it gets you to that culture of ‘yes’. Yes, we’re going to do it, but we have to figure out how to do it in new ways. And that involves bringing the artist in at the beginnings, not the end. Not after you’ve already designed your intersection and there’s the spot for the art and you plop it down. That’s not how we want to do things.

Do you think that with the elevating of this office, putting it on the level of Public Works and those other major departments has helped?

Oh, very much so. Being a Chief, and I know it’s a little bit of an unusual title for what is typically the arts commissioner, it has helped enormously to be at the table, in cabinet meetings, a that same level as people who are heads of other departments or who have baskets of departments under their purview. It helps to create the buy-in and he receptivity. So they’re there at the table, seeing the Mayor openly supporting arts and culture, saying ‘We’re going to grow your department,’ and that really sets the tone. That’s sort of the role of leadership is to say yes. There’s the will to do that kind of work.

Then there’s also the personal relationships. To be able to speak directly to the other Chiefs on a peer level is enormously important. I’ve met many of my counterparts in other cities, and they say, ‘How do you execute a partnership wit this department, that department?’ And for me, there’s no question. I see them every week in a cabinet meeting. I can say ‘Hey, let’s work on this together.’ There aren’t these hurdles, we aren’t in a separate building, and that’s been very useful.

We’ve gotten a little bogged down in city government, I want to back up and talk more about the city and the arts. I’m curious to hear what you think makes a city’s art scene, maybe even backing away from the government side of things. Are there other institutions that you think really contribute? Can you compare it to Chicago?

Of course city government isn’t going to be the only answer, the only player. This is very much a partnership. Stewarding the cultural life of the city, helping grow and support the cultural sector, for sure it’s not going to be just city government. I mean, my budget is growing, but it’s still tiny. My staff is tiny. And it is absolutely going to be a group effort.

Part of what we’re doing is understanding how we can foster public-private partnerships.

Who are the players?

In Boston, the universities are absolutely giant providers of cultural experiences. As one of the most basic things, they’re housing a lot of the cultural infrastructure of the city. They’re training tens of thousands of innovative, creative people. They’re drawing people to the city. Universities play a very different role here than in Chicago. In the individual universities, it’s not that different. Of course in Chicago there were universities doing all of the same things, but really the clustering and the magnitude, and so many universities in such a small geography, makes the universities a powerhouse industry in Boston. So this is an incredible resource. To me, that’s one of the most striking differences between the two communities. Of course, there are many others.

Geography is so different. Boston is very, very closely surrounded by other municipalities, and also has he statehouse right in the middle of Boston. There are very different geographic and geopolitical relationships in Chicago. I think it’s an enormous opportunity for Boston. Unparalleled opportunity. The possibilities of collaborations and best practices, and really understanding what our neighbors are doing. How can we collaborate and support each other?

It’s great opportunity but it’s also a challenge. My tools stop at the borders of the city. The arts community, and the people who are involved in the arts community, and the audiences flow beyond borders. The creative energy flows beyond borders. This is a unique challenge, and opportunity together to think about how we can plan together.

What are some of the big challenges you see working in Boston, and trying to foster a vibrant arts community?

I do think geography is a challenge in Boston. We’re separated by rivers and bridges and big physical boundaries. I can see East Boston right there, but it’s not that easy to get to. There are really cool arts events and arts organizations and artists over there, and I think they sometimes can feel very cut off and isolated and separate. I think that it’s a challenge for them to draw audiences across the river, even though it’s really that close. That is one of the unique challenges of Boston, helping people to feel like all of the cultural assets in the whole city are available to them and theirs for the experiencing. I think people feel very cut off and separate by neighborhood.

I think people do tend to be a little bit isolated in their pocket, in their corner of the city, and they don’t tend to go as far and wide. Even though it is actually a pretty small city. And things are not that far away, but people feel all cut off. It’s the transit system being all these separate lines and not all one transit system. Like, the transit stop for all of the North End is over here at the Haymarket. The transit stop for South Boston is at the Red Line, and that’s just the very beginning of South Boston, there’s a whole other part. The transit system is a challenge.

So, what is you great vision for Boston?

We’ll have achieved real success if, five or ten years down the pike, we’ll look at the cultural plan and say ‘Well, actually, we did all of that. We’ve checked off all of those things. Time to do another plan.’

And have a very thriving cultural community and a population that is deeply engaged in art making, and going to arts and culture and benefiting from participating in arts and culture. I’d love for people to have an easier time of accessing and participating in arts and culture, whether it’s going to a professional event as an audience member, or engaging in a creative expression of heir own.

I’d love to have people do the survey again, and check back with people and see if their own ability to explore and create has grow as a result of what we did.

Did we get more dollars in artists’ pockets? I’d love to see that artists are making a higher percentage of their income from something creative, that their average income grew. I’d love to see more of the graduates of creative programs stay in Boston. Those would be great things to achieve.

So graduates of creative programs tend to go elsewhere?

There isn’t great data on it. So first and foremost, getting better data would be terrific, but it differs tremendously depending on what genre of creative practice you’re in. It’s very, very different for people in the culinary arts versus music versus fashion, visual, tech; it’s all over the map for every different genre.

Does Boston excel in any of those genres, or are we just trying to catch up to other cities?

I think that it’s very cyclical. There are times when there’s a lot going on in film and television, like it’s pretty booming right now, but I know that there have been dry periods. There are times when the music scene is hopping and there’s a lot going on. It goes in waves, it goes up and down.

Where do you think we are in that cycle now?

That’s a really good question and I don’t know. I’m still looking to build out my staff. Just today, we were having a meeting to talk about data, and I don’t have a good sense of that. I know that in the past season or two, there has been an incredible run of new works in music, opera, and theater that have been generated in the city of Boston. I’ve been so excited to go to so many new works, world premieres. And a longtime Bostonian old me, ‘Oh, That’s really recent.’ I don’t know if it’s really recent, or if it’s just their perception.

The whole perception and reality is a tough thing to sort out. But I know the New Play Alliance is really tracking how many world premier plays have happened, and I was astonished. There’s some published data on the number of world premier plays in Boston. It’s an astonishing number. And I’ve seen a whole bunch just in the eight months I’ve been here. So that, I feel, is at a real peak right now, a real pinnacle.

Do you worry that we’re going to fall down from that pinnacle?

Not at all, I really don’t. I feel like there’s incredible momentum.

What do you think about Boston’s conservative reputation? Do you think that’s contributing to people’s perception of Boston as a not very creative place?

It’s interesting. As pervasive as that assumption is, there are so many people from Boston that are not from Boston. I don’t think that we’re Puritanical, or conservative, or parochial, I just think that’s wrong. I don’t think that’s a current or accurate portrayal of the arts scene here. So many people in Boston are not from Boston. So maybe it’s the audiences, or maybe it’s he pervasiveness of the traditional architecture. But the jury is still out on that one for me.

I don’t know what people outside of Boston think of Boston. It would be really interesting to test those perceptions, of what people outside of Boston think of Boston and what people inside of Boston think of Boston. And that’s opinion testing that we did in Chicago when we were implementing the cultural plan. When we were creating the cultural tourism strategy, we did a lot of perception testing. People in the suburbs, people overseas, people nationally, trying to understand people’s perceptions and the recognition factor of various cultural assets, and he cultural brand. I think it’s an exercise hat would be worth doing, to understand how Boson is perceived, and how we can position our assets in a way that helps more accurately portray what’s here.

Does it matter what people outside of Boston think of Boston?

To the extent that they might come for a visit and do cultural stuff, for sure it matters. It does matter. When you’re growing up, people say you shouldn’t worry what people think of you. But when you think about the economy and tourism and the health of our cultural sector, it is important. A city the size of Boston has the cultural assets it has because people outside of Boston come to Boston, and spend money, and patronize our cultural assets. They do help very much support the infrastructure that we have.


What are some of the most exciting programs now for your department?


We have our Emerge Festival this week [it was 9/10]. We’re re-imaging the old arts festival that my department used to do. It used to be on Christopher Columbus Park. I never went, but from what I heard, it was a pretty mainstream. A downtown location on Labor Day weekend, it would have been mostly like a tourist crowd. So we wanted to think about how to serve a different audience in a different way and kind of re-envision this festival.

Another event we have is the Russian Ballet at our own little Strand Theater.

What is the Strand Theater?

It’s a city-owned building. It’s an old 1400-seat traditional proscenium theater. It’s owned by the city, run by my staff. We have a variety of events, community events, and performing arts. You know, it’s one of these places that fell on hard times, I would say, and has undergone a lot of restoration in the past decade or so. It’s in Dorchester on Columbia Road, in Upham’s corner. Not super-far away Dorchester, sort of closer-in Dorchester.

But still, you don’t hear a lot about arts in Dorchester, ballet in Dorchester.

I know! And it’s a great venue. This is the Russian Ballet, so it’s something you don’t get to see very often.


Whether or not you got to the ballet, you should take the Boston Creates survey, and let your voice as a creator and/or consumer of art be heard.

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