For Jesse Brackenbury, executive director of downtown Boston’s Rose F. Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, public art and economic growth are tied up in the same question. “How do you get Harvard students to not go work in New York or in Silicon Valley or in Seattle,” he asks as we sit in front of Shinique Smith’s newly opened mural in Dewey Square Park. “Well, part of it is you make it feel like Boston is forward-looking and just as fun as any of those cities.”
And how does Brackenbury do that? By filling the city with exciting works of art available to the public.
Brackenbury has tinted orange sunglasses, and he’s wearing a suit for the opening of Smith’s mural “‘Seven Moon’ Junction.” The mural is a flashy display with splashes of bright yellow paint, swooping swaths of black, and painted friendship bracelet braids drooping across the facade. An Ethiopian pop band is playing, children are running across the green space without shoes, classes of students are filing past a food truck. This is what Brackenbury envisioned for the Greenway Conservancy.
“Part of what will keep all of the people graduating from all of the colleges here staying here is feeling like there is real energy, real vibrancy, real new ideas, real innovation,” Brackenbury says. “And public art—particularly contemporary public art—can play a real role in making this a vibrant 21st century city.”
It seems that city administrators support this view as well. Last week Mayor Marty Walsh appointed a chief of arts and culture, Julie Burros. According to a press release from the Mayor’s Office, Burros will oversee the members of the Boston Art Commission and the Boston Cultural Council, as well as their $1.3 million annual budget. The administration filled this “Arts Czar” position after it had been vacant for more than 20 years, and Walsh has stated that he wants to integrate art and culture into the lives of Boston residents.
But what does that mean? How can we integrate “culture” into our everyday lives if it is an inherent part of our existence already?
Brackenbury sits back in his red plastic Adirondack chair and tries to summarize Boston’s motivation for increasing public art. “There’s a fun element to it, there’s a draw-people-to-the-park element to it, but if you’re thinking about it as the mayor or the next governor, there’s also a competitiveness element.”
Boston has the potential to become another attractive, young city by creating artistic installations that bring people out of their buildings and into shared space. Think about the huge orange gates in New York City’s Central Park or the oddly attractive Cloud Gate, that huge metallic bean in Chicago’s Millenium Park. These works of art, even though the Central Park installation was temporary, became recognizable nationwide, and demonstrated the ability of public art to bring people into shared spaces. Though the Walsh administration’s push to increase art in the city started earlier this year, there are public art projects already years underway in parts of Boston. This suggests that the Walsh administration might be riding a public art wave rather than creating.