THE RECENTLY PAST The state’s $ 4 billion bill appears generous for the arts and culture sector, especially for groups with ties to communities of color. It includes $ 135 million to help the arts community recover from the COVID pandemic, with explicit instructions that the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the state’s arts agency, “takes into account diversity and racial, geographic and programmatic equity ”when distributing funds.

But these diversity and equity goals have clashed with lawmakers’ penchant for using budget negotiations to fund pet projects in their districts. The result: Most of the arts funding in the huge spending bill is tied to local allotments, of which only a small percentage goes to organizations run by or serving primarily people of color.

The assignment process is the ultimate insider’s game on Beacon Hill, with the most powerful lawmakers often wielding disproportionate influence and funding rewards that tend to favor politically connected organizations – which are rarely those of communities of color.

“There are really two things you need to get an assignment or to get things done,” said State Senator Becca Rausch, a Democrat from Needham who has advocated for more legislative transparency. “One is transparency,” she said, which means an understanding of the budgeting process. “And the other is access. We know that structurally these things are difficult for communities that have historically not had seats at the table. “

In addition to the $ 135 million arts item, there is another $ 13.5 million item dedicated to capital improvements related to culture and tourism. According to an analysis produced by MASSCreative, a state-wide arts and culture advocacy organization, these two positions combined contain $ 88.4 million in local allocations, leaving $ 60.1 million to the Massachusetts Cultural Council for distribution as part of its grant process. According to MASSCreative, only 6.4% of the $ 88.4 million allocated goes to organizations or projects serving black, Latino, Asian or other communities.

The legislature “included prescriptive language” on how funding for the arts should “go to those most affected by the pandemic, with equity concerns regarding race, diversity of art forms, geography and served populations at the forefront of decision-making, ”said Emily Ruddock, Executive Director of MASSCreative. “By diverting most of the funds to earmarking, we fear this directive may not be met.”

The Massachusetts Cultural Council, under the direction of Michael Bobbitt, a black playwright who recently drafted the council’s racial equity plan, has revamped its grant process in an effort to make it more friendly to minority artists. Bobbitt said the organization has implemented internal changes, such as ensuring grant review committees are represented by people of color and exploring ways people can submit grants in languages ​​other than english. He also tried to teach organizations run by people of color how to build relationships with lawmakers. “I hope we can work with the legislature going forward to make sure their assignments are more equitable,” Bobbitt said.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said the ARPA bill contained 843 credits for local projects and organizations, for a total of $ 304.4 million, or 7.6% of the bill’s total spending. In contrast, allotments account for 60% of arts funding in the bill, significantly weakening the impact of language promoting diversity and equity in the allocation of money.

The legislature has also taken a broad view of what counts as “arts and culture” since assignments in the arts post include such things as improvements to transit stations in Norfolk County, building level for the Brockton Council on Aging and the Gloucester Academy of Biotechnology expansion. . Of the roughly one-third of the credits that MASSCreative classified as being directly related to arts and culture, just over 2% goes to organizations or projects focused on communities of color.

Karthik Subramanian, co-executive director of Company One Theater in Boston, which works extensively in communities of color, said he personally learned about the assignment process through other Company One executives. But he failed to secure an assignment. “We’re so focused on sustaining operations that understanding what the posting process looks like, and then going into it, is a capacity issue,” Subramanian said.

Subramanian said many organizations run by people of color are small and don’t have the time or staff to lobby lawmakers for funding. Many leaders of color don’t even realize that assignments exist. Allocations are often reserved for investment projects, and many organizations led by BIPOC or serving BIPOC do not have their own spaces.

To get assignments, organizations must understand the political process and exercise political influence. That means knowing when, during the year, to start advocating for assignments, which is often long before the state budget is on anyone’s radar outside of the State House. It means having the ear of a legislator – one who has the ability to get an assignment approved by leaders. It also means having a relationship with that lawmaker, as lawmakers sometimes introduce more assignments than they realize, while also arguing behind the scenes for some of them.

From a political and strategic point of view, the allocations are justified. Politically, postings allow a lawmaker to bring home – and get credit for – specific projects in his district. Legislative leaders can also gain the support of a legislator for a bill by offering them local credits. Politically, legislators are closest to their districts and therefore may have the best idea of ​​which organizations are worth supporting.

“No one knows the region they represent better than the representatives,” Speaker of the House Ron Mariano said in a recent interview. “I think they can better identify some of the areas that need attention.”

But the same political pressures can also lead to an inequitable distribution of credits.

Senator Diana DiZoglio, Democrat of Methuen and candidate for the post of auditor, who criticized the legislative process, delivered a speech during the debate on the ARPA bill in the Senate, complaining that communities in the Merrimack Valley received just $ 300,000 to tackle the sewage overflow into the Merrimack River while communities with more influential lawmakers got more.

“These communities deserve to be given priority just as much as the communities of those who are among the most powerful among us in this body,” said DiZoglio. Although she did not give names, Westport, the hometown of Ways and Means Senate Speaker Michael Rodrigues, was awarded $ 1 million for water and sewer infrastructure.

In an interview, DiZoglio said she had no problem with the assignment in principle, but said the way the assignments are distributed is not fair. “You see some communities benefit from being in favor of leadership or some other political reason and other communities suffering from it,” said DiZoglio.

Rausch added that a lack of diversity among members of the Legislative Assembly compounds the problem. “It takes intentionality on the part of the Legislative Assembly to reach out to organizations and communities that have historically been under-represented,” she said.

Meet the author

Journalist, Commonwealth

On Shira Schönberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter for CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for over seven years at the Springfield Republican / MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as starting the legal marijuana industry, issues with the state foster care system and the elections of US Sen Elizabeth Warren and Governor Charlie Baker. Shira won the 2018 Massachusetts Bar Association Award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and several articles won awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Prior to that, she worked for the Concord (NH) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, city hall, and Barack Obama’s primary campaign in New Hampshire in 2008. Shira is the incumbent of a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

On Shira Schönberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter for CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for over seven years at the Springfield Republican / MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as starting the legal marijuana industry, issues with the state foster care system and the elections of US Sen Elizabeth Warren and Governor Charlie Baker. Shira won the 2018 Massachusetts Bar Association Award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and several articles won awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Prior to that, she worked for the Concord (NH) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, city hall, and Barack Obama’s primary campaign in New Hampshire in 2008. Shira is the incumbent of a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

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