Sketch by Benjamin Stroud
Despite being asked by moderator Joyce Kulhawik to be as specific as possible, answers at last night’s Gubernatorial Candidates Forum on Arts, Culture, and Creativity were often heavily anecdotal, vague, and evasive. The forum, organized by arts advocacy group MASSCreative‘s Create The Vote campaign, and held at Worcester’s Hanover Theatre of Performing Arts, was the first time in Massachusetts’ history that governor candidates gathered specifically to discuss their platform on the arts in this way. Its existence in and of itself is certainly a victory for the creative community, but, as Kulhawik, an Emmy Award-winning arts & entertainment critic, said as she concluded the program, “This is just the beginning.” The candidates, some more than others, have to polish their platforms and continue to express their investment in the arts.
Audience members, representatives of creative organizations from all corners of the state, were looking for concrete details and ideas. Instead they heard about Attorney General Martha Coakley’s (D) childhood cello lessons and Jeff McCormick’s (I) poor musician roommate of yesteryear. While a touching story shared by Democrat Don Berwick about returning home from Jerusalem for one night to see his son star in a high school production of “Hamlet” was met with enthusiastic cheers, many others fell flat and felt insincere. Mark Fisher (R) continued to return to a story about attending the Norman Rockwell Museum with his sons, leading me to believe this is the only museum he’s ever been to. The only thing he mentioned more than that museum trip, was that he was “arts illiterate” and “art challenged,” as if it excused him from being a well-informed panel member.
While candidates were asked to speak on ten topics in total (candidates had between 60 and 90 seconds to respond – though, answers rambled into two minutes plus in length consistently), the overarching question of the evening was how we can make Massachusetts a leader in the arts. Beneath the rhetoric and buzz words – at risk youth, affordable housing, healthcare! – one could begin to decode each candidates’ stance (Charlie Baker (R), and Scott Lively (I) were not in attendance).
Berwick, by far the most thoughtful speaker of the night, allied himself with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, complimenting his recent efforts to make the city more artist friendly. He spoke of city-by-city initiatives as a way to revamp the state as a whole. He also continually connected arts with his other political platforms, suggesting the solutions for issues such as affordable healthcare, arts funding, and unpaid internship regulations are interconnected.
While Coakley was certainly endearing, she continued to discuss artists friends and family members instead of offering any concrete plans. “Art is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” she said firmly, but she was preaching to the choir. The fact that #ArtsMatter was not up for debate; what concrete actions are you going to take because arts do matter, Coakley?
Similarly, Treasurer Steve Grossman (D) introduced himself as Mr. Barbara Grossman, highlighting his involvement and dedication to the arts by way of his wife of 40 years who is Vice Chair of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. This played out better for him than Coakley, but continued to eat up his speaking time that could’ve been better utilized. One mention and grandiose introduction of Mrs. Grossman would’ve sufficed.
United Independent Party candidate Evan Falchuk grappled with the question, “What are we going to do about it,” referring to the decreased funding in the arts in the last 25 years. Instead of offering lofty, impractical solutions, he attempted to convey to the audience that this was a problem with deep roots, and he is willing to dig.
Jeff McCormick (I), an investment banker and entrepreneur, brought his business savvy to the table, calling artists an investment, something the artist heavy audience was certainly aware of. Perhaps some of the general public is educated to that fact too after ArtBoston’s Art Factor was released last month, announcing that the arts is responsible for $1 billion of direct spending in the region and “18,275,779 people attend Greater Boston’s arts and cultural institutions each year” which is “enough to sell out Fenway Park 488 times.” However, McCormick’s clearly out of his element in this discussion, as he said one of his prerogatives to help the arts is to fund start ups and software companies because the people who build these companies are creative. Creative? Sure. But thespians? Nut-uh. Painters? No sir. Burlesque dancers? Get outta town.
Fisher was the only candidate, I believe, to receive audible boos and hisses from last night’s crowd. One comment about cutting MIT’s arts funding as a solution to the problem and another about blaming all the democrats turned him into a laughing stock. Right from the start, Fisher challenged the forum, teasing that his creative responses about creativity shouldn’t be constrained by time restraints. Hoping for sympathy from audience members, Fisher was instead trumped by Kulhawik’s response, noting that true creatives know how to operate in the given parameters.
Perhaps the only thing I agree with Fisher on is that a traditional platform for this discussion was imperfect. That’s not the fault of MASSCreative, as candidates should be able to stick to the questions and time limits, and forget about trying to pull at the populous’ heartstrings. But they’re politicians – they can’t help themselves. Which is why Kulhawik’s plea that this be the beginning of the conversation, not the end, is so important. This is certainly a step in the right direction. And, if nothing else, voters have now seen some glaring red flags from certain candidates early in the race for the governor of Massachusetts.