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Matthew Wilson, the executive director of MASSCreative, speaks with local cultural leaders at Barrington Stage 2 in Pittsfield about how they can work to make arts and culture a prevalent feature in the upcoming Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign.

By Phil Demers, Berkshire Eagle Staff

PITTSFIELD -- The arts community isn’t the first place you’d look for political enthusiasts.

At a recent Create the Vote 2014 coalition meeting at Barrington Stage Company by MassCreative, one local artist said he was "dragged kicking and screaming" into the political sphere.

But now is as good a time as ever to get active, said Matt Wilson, MassCreative’s executive director. The nonprofit seeks a "unified advocacy voice" to help them play both offense and defense, with an important gubernatorial race coming down the pike and lawmakers recommending deep cuts to Massachusetts’ arts funding in its budget proposal.

"It’s time for us to take a step back and think about what our strengths are as a state," Wilson said. "What do we want the state to look like in five years? In 10 years? We need to show [politicians] that voters care about the arts."

The tactics Wilson proposed mirror actions taken by the arts community and MassCreative during Boston’s 2013 mayoral campaign, when Marty Walsh emerged as victor. Areas of focus included local and social media and voter recruitment.

In the mayoral race, MassCreative’s arts advocacy "created a buzz" on social media, earned prime spots on radio and in newspapers and resulted in each candidate making concrete promises to the arts community.

If it’s made apparent that many voters care about arts, culture and creativity, politicians will make it a priority in order to get elected, Wilson said, which has obvious implications for the Nov. 4 gubernatorial election. Two Republicans, five Democrats and three Independents intend to vie for the state’s top spot in the election.

"We have a great opportunity to influence this election," Wilson said. "In past campaigns, the problem has been arts and culture have never been a part of the discussion. Candidates don’t bring it up; it’s not on their platforms; you look on their websites now, it’s not on there. They’re not talking about it. We need to change that. I’m convinced by our past experience in Boston, we can."

MassCreative also intends to produce polls on how voters feel about the cultural importance of arts in Massachusetts and encourage a new tactic: "Dogging" politicians. He told attendees to text the word "voter" to the number 617-934-5713 for more information and regular updates on their efforts.

"I’m dogging already," Van Shields, executive director of Berkshire Museum, said after signing up.

Recent developments at the Statehouse add a sense of urgency to the effort.

Last week, the House Ways & Means Committee presented a budget that would halve funding for Massachusetts Cultural Council, from $11.1 million to $5 million.

"I don’t think anybody knew this was coming," said Maureen Hennessey of Richmond, who attended the meeting.

Hennessey contrasted the proposed sum with the $22 million she said the Massachusetts Council on Arts and Humanities -- MCC’s former title -- was receiving when she moved to the state during the late ‘80s.

The budget was slashed to $3 million during the ‘90s and advocates have been working to slowly build it back up since then, Hennessey said.

A MassCreative-led pushback is already in the works, with local help.

Wilson said Pittsfield residents "should be proud" because state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, was the first state lawmaker to sign an amendment, sponsored by state Rep. Cory Atkins, to fund the Cultural Council at $16 million.

The meeting later broke into groups that brainstormed various ways to bring the arts into the political arena.

MassCreative is a nonprofit and cannot openly advocate for any gubernatorial candidate. The nonprofit plans to offer all the candidates opportunities to speak about their commitment to the arts and its social media and other publications will present nonpartisan information on the various candidate’s proposals and pronouncements on the topic, Wilson said.

To reach Phil Demers:
pdemers@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 281-2859.
On Twitter: @BE_PhilD