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An update from the Boston AIR leadership team: Karin Goodfellow And Sharon Amuguni

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Arts and Culture

Here's what we're thinking about during COVID-19.

Since 2015, the Boston Artists-in-Residence (Boston AIR) program has asked the City’s best creative thinkers to work from within City Hall to study, explore, and change Boston. We’ve brought artists inside the very systems they want to change. We’ve asked our colleagues to open up their work and trust the artists. 

Boston AIR asks artists to examine the way municipal policies, processes, and procedures impact Bostonians, and residency projects are responsive to their social and political context. Implementing projects at the intersection of civil service, social justice, and artistic practice during the turmoil caused by COVID-19 has been particularly challenging—but it has also amplified our understanding of the impact inequity has on our community, and compelled critical conversations about the arts and social justice.  

We approached this year thoughtfully. After designing and running three rounds of Boston AIR, we took a year to gather and absorb our learnings. We prepared ourselves with hard earned experience, welcomed difficult feedback from trusted collaborators, and listened to former Artists-in-Residence who offered us advice and encouragement. In preparation for the fourth year, we asked other City departments to apply to the program, outlining responsibilities for all participants and laying the groundwork for genuine partnerships. We released a refined call to artists, prioritizing clarity and alignment with our programmatic values. We called on one exemplary artist from each of the previous years to join us as mentors. Finally, we reviewed nearly 100 applications with internal and external colleagues and after careful consideration, invited five incredibly talented, smart, and kind artists to join us this year as Artists-in-Residence at the City of Boston. 

In order to lead the program in its fourth iteration, we drafted a set of values and goals to ground our work: 

We believe in artistic practice and the lens it provides in problem-solving and strategy development. We believe that strong, visionary, and accessible art and talented artists should be present in all communities in Boston. We believe in civically engaged communities that understand and participate in systems of government. We believe that a more equitable city is a stronger city for all Bostonians. We believe in the power of listening, collaboration, and collective action.

Through Boston Artists-in-Residence we hope to achieve capacity building and educational program outcomes, help residents gain more access to the City and its staff, and become more comfortable directly engaging with the City moving forward. Through AIR we hope to open up existing perceptions and inform how Bostonians (including artists, City staff, and everyone else!) understand and interact with each other, highlight other narratives of Boston: Boston as a city of artists, Boston as a city of collaborators, Boston as a multicultural city, Boston as a city responsive to its residents, Boston as a city moving towards resilience and racial equity, and create a network of artists organizing and advocating collectively and effectively for a more equitable future.

With these core values and a cohort of artists we believed in and wanted to learn from, we were ready. We were going to get it right.

In the background of our preparations, COVID-19 was slowly making its way into our minds and changing our behaviors. Train rides were suddenly anxious experiences. Handshakes were refused. Hugs were dropped. The virus suddenly had a strong presence in our city, and COVID-19 restrictions fell into place the week of our scheduled Boston AIR orientation at City Hall. 

We found ourselves exploring how to reconstruct the program to operate within the parameters of our physical isolation, disorientation, and insecuritywith care for artists we did not yet know well. For us, this meant reimagining what integral parts of our program, like community engagement, look like, and reconsidering whether our previous methods were inviting all Bostonians to participate. It meant using tools for virtual meetings to allow connections in spite of place. We acknowledge that many communities, such as the disability justice community, have always operated with the frameworks and techniques that many institutions are now utilizing en masse. As we continue to reimagine our structure, we see this as an opportunity for collective learning, growth, and a chance to move towards greater equity and access, during and after this moment.

As City employees in the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, we see directly how artists' creative practices and incomes are being adversely impacted by COVID-19. We also understand that even with good intentions, municipal systems frequently don’t meet the needs of the most vulnerable. While it seemed inappropriate to continue asking artists to imagine and test new approaches to City policies while they and their communities suffered through COVID-19, we believe the work of the AIR program can support the City in recognizing and exploring opportunities for change especially now when our interdependence and need for creative thinking is so evident.

The desire to collaborate for a more equitable world is not a new one, and we understand and acknowledge that for many there have always been extended social emergencies. By continuing with the program, we’d like to acknowledge this, and acknowledge the vulnerable communities who are experiencing a greater impact in this time of uncertainty.

Like many of you, the artists we are working with this year feel a social responsibility to explore how this global emergency is directly impacting our communities and the services provided by their department, and are looking for ways to support Bostonians in this time of isolation and disorientation. As leaders of the program, we are working to support them as they consider ways to explore, witness, speak, and create space, while still providing opportunities for them to ask big questions, such as, “Is our response to COVID-19 illuminating what changes could be made to have a more equitable and resilient city?”

Through Boston AIR, we are trying to re-imagine a more creative and equitable Boston, and we hope to be able to do so, even during this pandemic. 

We understand that it is a privilege to move forward with the program, even in this modified form, and hope that by continuing with this civic practice work, we’re able to actively listen to and learn from each other, uplift each other’s narratives, and to be a well of kindness, care, and respect for one another.

Special thanks to our Artists and City Partners: