NO STATE AGENCY has taken more of a pounding from the press this year over its spending practices than the Massachusetts Cultural Council, but the agency is poised to emerge from the Beacon Hill budget-writing process with its highest appropriation in years, even if that comes with some new restrictions on its spending.
How that came about is partly a story about a tabloid feeding frenzy, but it’s also evidence of how state funding for arts and cultural projects at the municipal level has become a sought-after prize for Beacon Hill lawmakers. For them, it’s all about money fueling an arts and cultural scene across the state that attracts tourists, spurs economic development, and builds neighborhood pride.
“It’s a very popular program because it brings grants to our cities and towns that enhance tourism,” said Rep. Brad Hill, the assistant Republican leader in the House, who pointed to the council’s support for an annual festival in his district that illuminates the Ipswich River with bonfires, along with other lights and music.
Rep. Louis Kafka, a Stoughton Democrat who is a member of House leadership, said the council’s popularity derives from the resources it pours into local programs, not from its Boston-based leadership.
“I don’t necessarily hear from Mass. Cultural Council all that much,” he said. “It’s the locals driving it, so I work towards making my pitch towards increasing the budget so the local groups continue to flourish.”
Both the House and Senate took somewhat paradoxical approaches at the agency in the fiscal 2020 budget this year, seeking to both boost the state’s financial support for the arts council and also impose new limits on how those public dollars can be spent. The details of what will be included in the final budget bill are being worked out behind closed doors, but there were big differences between the two chambers going into the negotiations.
The Senate budget would boost state funding for the council by about $2 million in fiscal 2020, while the House would ratchet up council funding by about $500,000. Both branches also have language in their budget bills reining in spending. The council played a role in crafting the Senate language and supports it, but the organization’s executive director said the legislation adopted in the House would be overly restrictive on spending.
“There’s language in there that literally would prohibit us from leaving Boston,” Anita Walker, the executive director, claimed in an interview. The House budget would prohibit state funding from being spent on travel, even within Massachusetts, according to the council, and put other restrictions on some of the funding. According to House budget writers, the language was intended to “ensure that the Council is spending funds in an appropriate manner similar to how other state agencies do.”
The Senate budget, which Walker supports, would require 75 percent of the amount of its state funding go towards “grants and subsidies.”
The furor over council spending was kicked up by the Boston Herald, which has run numerous stories and editorials over the past year taking the agency to task for its spending on travel for meetings and conferences, on takeout food consumed at its Boston office, and on a take-home Toyota Prius for Walker. The Herald’s relentless coverage suggests the arts agency is squandering taxpayer money, but even one of the council’s critics who was quoted by the tabloid concedes that there is nothing wrong with the council sending staff to conferences if that provides a benefit to constituents.
“The big thing is to bring back some value-added and make sure our local cultural councils and our local districts benefit,” said Sen. Don Humason in an interview. The Westfield Republican even said he wouldn’t mind council staff traveling overseas if that benefitted his constituents.
Humason embodies the Legislature’s countervailing approaches to the state arts council this year. The lawmaker, who is running for mayor in his hometown, criticized the council’s travel expenses, telling the Herald he didn’t want the cultural council spending money on “junkets.” But then he voted for a $1 million council budget amendment that overwhelmingly passed the Senate on top of the $1 million increase Senate budget writers had already earmarked for the agency.
Humason is a fan of the agency’s work in his district, and said he thinks Walker is doing a “good job,” but he suggested that the council spends lavishly on its travel – a claim Walker denies.
“Districts like mine and many other districts across the state really rely on that money for cultural and artistic events,” Humason said. “It should go to the cities and towns. It should not go towards: ‘Let’s take junkets across the country. Let’s spend a lot of money on traveling, nice hotels, cars, and all the extras.’”
Cultural council staff attend conferences solely for the purpose of educating them in ways that will benefit the local arts programs the council supports, according to Walker, who said staff must justify the travel and then provide takeaways from what they learned both for the council and the broader community. The council always looks for the most affordable airfare and stays in the most affordable room, which is typically in the conference hotel, Walker said.
“We send staff for professional development only. That is the beginning and the end of any reason we would send a staff member to a convening or a conference anywhere, in Massachusetts or outside Massachusetts,” Walker said. She said she dislikes traveling herself, but the agency pays for staff travel so that it can spread knowledge accumulated from around the country with people running festivals or museums or arts programs around the state.
The Cultural Council occupies a unique space in the constellation of state government. For one thing, the council’s supporters tend to be more creative and colorful in their advocacy than, say, the constituency for the Division of Professional Licensure or the Department of Industrial Accidents. The council also operates out of office space in the Back Bay, a good distance from Beacon Hill and the cluster of state office buildings there.
The council lives largely outside the political considerations that constrain other state agencies. In terms of governance structure, the council is housed within the treasury, which is overseen by state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, an elected Democrat, but Walker answers to a 19-member council that has been appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican.
“I like to say we live in political Switzerland,” Walker said, meaning the council is “not aligned with any political party, which is often the case with political appointees, and able to work with all branches of government.”
Before coming to Massachusetts, Walker worked in the Iowa arts agency, which was under the direct control of Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat.
“When Governor Vilsack would say, ‘Here’s your budget, Anita,’ that was the end of the conversation. And, unfortunately, it usually wasn’t what I was hoping for,” Walker said in an interview.
Here in Massachusetts, Walker is free to lobby for funding, and lawmakers say she does it well. The agency lists all of its grants on its website, organized by legislative district, so lawmakers can see where they stand relative to everybody else. Two years ago, when Walker appeared before legislative budget writers, three lawmakers – Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett, Rep. Don Wong of Saugus, and Rep. Paul Tucker of Salem – took time to praise the work of the council before anyone even asked a question.
Part of the council’s assistance to local programs is monetary, but council staff also provide valuable consulting, helping to handle the unglamorous financial and administrative responsibilities required to support arts scenes and museums around the state.
“We’re not just sending checks,” Walker said. “We make sure that these investments that the citizens of the Commonwealth are making with their precious tax dollars are working really hard.”
The council works with 47 state-designated cultural districts, 400 non-profit cultural organizations, 329 local cultural councils, and 70 creative youth development programs, according to Walker, who said that since last July council staff made 700 visits to 110 communities in Massachusetts. In addition to the operating budget funding, the council awards funding for capital facility programs, which Gov. Charlie Baker has funded at $10 million annually, Walker said.
Most of the council’s budget is appropriated by state lawmakers – so even if the council enjoys some autonomy, the Legislature holds the purse strings. In fiscal 2019, the council’s budget was $18.1 million, and all but about $2 million came through the state budget. State funding for the council has shot up during Baker’s tenure – from $11.8 million in fiscal 2016 to $16.2 million in fiscal 2019. Baker has tried to temper that spending growth, but lawmakers have overridden his vetoes.
Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Webster Republican, noted that he has supported the arts agency in the past, even voting to override a gubernatorial veto, but he was troubled by the news coverage about how the council had spent its money.
“What concerns me in those numbers is the recent headlines of what has been done with the money,” Fattman said on the Senate floor. Fattman was the lone vote this year against increasing the council’s appropriation in the Senate.
One of the expenditures that the Herald returned to again and again in its dissection of cultural council finances was the $3,700 spent over a recent 12-month period by the agency at Davio’s, which the paper described as takeout from the “upscale” downtown restaurant. The image of public servants chowing down on grub from one of Boston’s premier steakhouses on the public dime is awkward at the very least when juxtaposed with the other needs for state funding.
But the council doesn’t buy takeout from the white tablecloth restaurant, according to Walker, it orders catering from Davio’s To Go, a relatively run-of-the-mill lunch counter on the ground floor of the council’s Boston offices. The prices of sandwiches – advertised at between $7.50 and $8 on the counter’s blackboard – are hardly out of the norm for Boston.
“We’ve used them for convenience because they’re in our building,” said Walker, who said cultural council staff will pick up food from the lunch counter for board meetings or events where people travel to the Boston offices for panels or other events.
Regardless of how warranted it is, the perception has stuck among the policymakers who matter most that new limits should be applied to how the council spends its funding. The House and Senate have chosen different approaches to that – with the House choosing a stricter remedy. The specifics are subject to the secret budget negotiations that House Speaker Robert DeLeo said could stretch beyond the weekend, into the first days of the new fiscal year.
No matter what the new legal framework for council funding looks like, the sustained criticism and scrutiny has caused the council to sit up and take notice, and for one of its critics, that’s part of the point.
“I know Anita. She’s come to my district before,” Humason said. “I think she’s doing a good, job but I also think it never hurts to be reminded that the Legislature is watching.”