Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities, and sciences to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Anita Walker: I think over the last decade plus, we have built a relationship of trust with our field, and that has enabled us to do so much more than we could ever have done before.
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker, executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is, well, it’s me. I know. That sounds a little strange. Now, how am I going to interview myself? I’m not going to interview myself. We are actually having a special celebration today because this is our 100th Creative Minds Out Loud podcast, and our staff, our team, decided to turn the tables on me, and we have invited Maria Garcia, who is the senior editor of the ARTery, WBUR’s arts and culture team, to join us today and be the interviewer, so, Maria, I am your guest.
Maria Garcia: Hello, Anita.
Anita Walker: Welcome.
Maria Garcia: I’m so happy to be here. How does it feel to be on the other side of this interviewer/interviewee dynamic?
Anita Walker: I have to say, I’m a bit nervous, and now I can identify with all those 100 guests we had before.
Maria Garcia: Well, I’m so happy to be here. I know that this podcast has really amplified the voices of people from all over the nonprofit cultural sector, and so I’m just excited to interview you today. So, Anita, you’ve been with the Mass Cultural Council since April of 2007. You’re the highest-ranking cultural official in the state. So tell me, what does that mean? What does your job look like here at the Mass Cultural Council?
Anita Walker: Well, first and foremost I want to say it is such an honor and a privilege, and I have learned so much in the last 13 years here in the Commonwealth from our field. It’s a privilege to be working in the arts and culture, and it’s fun, too, but it’s also a special responsibility to have a role in government, and lots of times people forget that the Mass Cultural Council is a state agency. We are all state employees here at the Mass Cultural Council, and sometimes when people think of government or the state, they think of regulators and people who kind of come by with their clipboard to check off all the things that you’re doing wrong, the “culture police” type of an attitude, and we work really hard at the Mass Cultural Council to be seen by our field as truly, truly their partners. I think over the last decade plus we have built a relationship of trust with our field, and that has enabled us to do so much more than we could ever have done before, so we work with some 400 nonprofit cultural organizations in the arts, humanities, and sciences providing here’s kind of the boring term, operating support, unrestricted dollars that pay for those glamorous things like the electric bill and sweeping the snow off the sidewalk–
Maria Garcia: The new HVAC system, all those capital improvements.
Anita Walker: All those kinds of really exciting things, but the fact of the matter is running a nonprofit cultural organization is really a difficult job in this environment. Lots of times people will say, “Well, why don’t you just run it like a business?” Well, guess what. If we were a business, the nonprofit cultural organizations, it would be the only business that was built on a design where you create a product and sell it for less than it costs to make. I don’t know too many businesspeople who would sign up for that project, but that is what our field does, whether it’s producing plays or music or taking care of a natural environment and inviting the public in. The cost of creating that experience is usually about a third to two thirds more than it costs the organization to make, and that’s why that trust relationship with our field and their donors with their field and their public, their customers, and the field with us, and we represent the taxpayers, is absolutely essential, so I feel like the Mass Cultural Council sits right at the fulcrum of that relationship, which is essential for nonprofit cultural organizations.
Maria Garcia: Right, right, right. And so how do you build that trust? Tell me. What are the practical things that the Mass Cultural Council has done since 2007 to build that trust?
Anita Walker: It’s slow, patient work. You don’t just walk into an organization one day and say, “Well, trust us. Here we are. The state has arrived, and you can trust us.” That’s probably the worst strategy, so we actually took a lot of time looking, listening, spending time listening to our field, and we took a program, which was, again, operating support– I use this as an example. We’ve done this with all of our programs– which was a competitive grant program. Basically what that meant, that every year our organizations would have to kill several trees, would have to fill out about a 3-inch stack of papers for an application, send it into the Mass Cultural Council. Our staff was administrators then. Basically their job was to administer grant programs. I called them the master of the three-hole punch because they’d take all these applications and put them in binders, and then we would invite experts. Sometimes experts from out of state to come sit around a table, read these piles of applications, rank them, score them, and put them in I call the old Dr. Seuss machine, which would rumble and jumble and spit out a grant amount that no one could ever explain, and that was pretty much our relationship with our field, so we decided to redesign the program. We formula fund these organizations. Now they’re funded basically driven by our appropriation from the legislature and a three-year rolling average of their expenses, but the purpose of the program is every single one of the grant dollars that we send out to these organizations is just a seed inside a package of services. We visit every single one of the 400 organizations that we provide operating support to, and by the way, all of the other grantees are visited as well on a regular basis. When we visit, we’re not there–
Maria Garcia: How do you physically do that? Your staff is not– That sounds like you have to have somebody full-time sort of just out there visiting.
Anita Walker: It’s so interesting you say that because when I suggested we do that, I got the same reaction from the staff. They’re very rational people.
Maria Garcia: It’s just a lot of grantees.
Anita Walker: And actually it’s even more than our staff. So, we took a look at the organizations in our portfolio, and we set up a system, and so there are 400, so it takes four years to get around to everybody, but every visit is meaningful. We don’t even call them site visits anymore. This is a program that’s grown and evolved over the last 10 years. We call them engagement opportunities, but really what we’re trying to do in every engagement, in every interaction that we have with our field is listen and learn and serve our field better, so when we started the Cultural Investment Portfolio program, we visited all 400 over four years. We spent the day. We met the senior staff. We sat with the board. We participated in a performance. We got to see what the product of the work was, and we invited in the community, the local school district, teachers, parents, volunteers, anybody who might touch that organization in some way. After the first four years of visiting all of those organizations, we realized that we had pretty much earned a PhD in nonprofit management just from listening and learning, so then we’ve evolved the program over time. The next four years we let the organizations lead the meetings. The next four years we asked the organization to pick a topic that was special to them, and all throughout we enlist one of the most powerful forces that we have, and that is the intellectual capital that resides right here in Massachusetts and that we engage here on Creative Minds Out Loud, and we invite our organizations to come with us. Actually, we require our organizations to come with us on the site visits. When we first thought of that idea we said, “Well, what if they don’t want to come?” Are you kidding? They love to come. Cultural leaders are so busy and so dedicated that they don’t give themselves permission to take a day to leave the office, air quotes shown here on the podcast, to leave their organization and go out and learn, so we call these part professional development, part group therapy, and I would say, and I have been on hundreds of these visits, probably 75 to 80%, and I may be conservative right here. Eighty percent of the time, some sort of collaboration, partnership, or problem-solving experience happens unplanned in these meetings. One I’ll tell you about. We were out in the Berkshires, and this was in the very first year. We were at the Berkshire Community Music School, and we had invited our site visitors from other organizations, and Jason Trotta came from the Northampton Community Music School, and I was just asking just to learn like, “How do you run a community music school? And how do you do it in Pittsfield? And what’s it like? And what are the challenges?” And the director at the time said, “Well, I got to tell you. You know, it’s hard to find faculty out here, and, oh man, I need a violin teacher. We’re down one, and I’ve got demand, and I can’t provide the teacher.” Half a second. Jason said, “Wait a minute. I just hired one, and I’ll give you half.” Problem named. Problem solved. Wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the site visit. So we think of ourselves not just as grant makers. We think of ourselves as service providers but also as, well, somebody used the term network weavers but really network building to really connect all of the magic in our field with each other because there is now so much interconnected problem-solving and support that’s happening, and I think that’s just making the cultural landscape of Massachusetts better and better.
Maria Garcia: So you’re a public servant in what some would call a very progressive state that values the arts. I know there’s some debate around that. I’m not saying that’s an objective statement, but I think it’s perceived that way. What has that allowed you in terms of setting your vision for your tenure here and executing that and thinking about what an arts state agency, what it takes ownership of, and the initiatives it begins that intersect with other parts of civic life. Tell me about that.
Anita Walker: Oh, that’s so interesting. That’s a great question. I have to start by saying that everything we do is really built on the needs and the ambitions of our field, so all of this listening that we do– I mean, we do 1000 community visits a year throughout our whole entire team here on various programs, and so we listen to our field, and we’re interested in what they’re interested in, but then we feel that since we operate at a little bit of a different level of the atmosphere we can be the connector between our field’s interest and ambitions and sort of what is the environment. We can be out on the horizon. We can look at the big things that are coming next, and then we can know what the energy is that we can unleash to address bigger problems. The arts and culture really aren’t meant to operate in a vacuum. They are precious things. They’re ever-present.
Maria Garcia: They’re everywhere. It’s how we live our daily lives.
Anita Walker: Yes, they’re everywhere. They’re unavoidable. You cannot escape it.
Maria Garcia: It’s human expression.
Anita Walker: And it’s humanity. It truly, truly is. So we try to think of where we can make that connection. So let me give you an example of sort of how that looks. Before I got here, New England and Massachusetts in particular sort of took two words and put them together, and they became a national agenda, and the two words were creative and economy. So the original research that identified that there was such a thing as a creative economy, that happened right here in New England, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council launched the first program to really support work in the arts and economic development. Well, ever since then everybody does that, and that has been a real boon not only to building the respect of the value and impact of the arts and culture, but it’s revitalized communities, and it’s created jobs, and it’s done an enormous amount, so that’s been going on for probably two plus decades I’d say now. But we must be dynamic, and we must evolve, and we must pay attention to what’s right in front of us. We’ve been thinking for a couple of years about this sense of the loss of community, and I’m sure you’ve reported on and you cannot pick up the newspaper or listen to the radio any day of the week without hearing about an epidemic of social isolation and loneliness and depression and anxiety and how this leads to serious health consequences whether it is mental health consequences. Literally I read an article– I read two articles in the last two weeks that said loneliness and social isolation is as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Now one of the things that we know from our field and from our experience is that one of the most powerful antidotes to social isolation and loneliness is participating in the arts. We are a protective factor. We are part of a good preventive diet, and it isn’t as hard as eating your spinach, and actually in many cases we can actually be an intervention for depression and anxiety and loneliness, so we started to think about this whole big world of where the arts and culture has a role in improving health and well-being. Now we are in a very political time as we are heading toward a presidential election, and there are many, many polls on what is on everybody’s minds in America, and consistently health ranks as number one. Well, that’s another one of our super powers, and so now this year we’re launching a major project called CultureRx where we want to make Massachusetts the first state in America that actually embraces a practice called social prescribing, and this is where health workers, doctors, medical personnel, and even guidance counselors and social workers who may encounter a client or a patient that might be referred to a pharmaceutical solution, and we know in many cases where that has led, but instead maybe write a prescription for the arts, write a prescription to take a class in pottery making. The worst side effect that you have under that is some bad teacups, I guess, but there’s a lot of research and experience that has happened elsewhere in the world around the positive impact of cultural and arts participation. So the UK has been looking at this for much longer than we have, and their very recent research shows that people who have had an arts and cultural experience and participate regularly report being 60% healthier just within a very recent timeframe. The World Health Organization did a massive study of all the research around arts and health. 900 citation in this 2-inch thick report, and the bottom line is the arts is effective and cost-effective in improving health and well-being in people, so our new initiative is really taking a look at honestly what’s happening already here in Massachusetts by pulling it together. That’s what we can do as a state agency. That’s what we can do from where we sit is bring together, again, all the work and experience and intellectual capital that we have right here in Massachusetts and figure out a way that we can support that work and give credit to our organizations for what they’re doing. So our first launch is a partnership with the Health Connector. This is the subsidized health insurance in Massachusetts, launched in January 2020, so anyone who has the ConnectorCare card, and there are about a quarter of a million people in Massachusetts– these are people who don’t get health insurance through their employer– they can get highly subsidized and affordable insurance through the Health Connector, and that Connector card is now going to give them access to more than 100 cultural organizations, and our partner, the Health Connector, is going to continually remind its members with the ConnectorCare card to go take a walk in the words, to go see a play, to listen to music, to take a class. Take your kids to the Children’s Museum. These are all protective factors for health. This is a first-in-the-nation partnership between subsidized health insurance and arts and culture. We got confidence to do this because we tried something else new a couple years ago, again, built on what we were hearing in the field and the trusting relationship we have with our field. I don’t know how many times I visited an organization and they said, “We want to build our audience. We want to diversify our audience.”
Maria Garcia: That is all you hear in every cultural organization.
Anita Walker: That’s all we hear. You’re absolutely right. But they said, “Here’s our problem. How do we know who we don’t know? How do we invite people we don’t know their names? We’ll have a free day, but who comes to the free day? The people who go on the paid days, and then they take advan– because they’re the only ones who know we’re doing it. We need to figure out how we know who we don’t know.” $64,000 question. Well, we kind of noodle on that over here. We finally found a partner in state government. It’s called the Department of Transitional Assistance, and it’s this little state agency that issues the EBT card. Some people think of it as the food stamps card. 800,000 people in Massachusetts have it. These are people at 150% of the poverty level, and we said, “Here’s the deal. We will recruit organizations to accept the EBT card. Show the card, and you’ll get in free or at a deeply reduced rate.” The Department of Transitional said, “Just tell everybody with the card about this program. You be the bridge. You be the connector.” We started this two years ago. Today we have 250 organizations that accept the EBT card, and in two years’ time that card has been used 370,000 times for admission to cultural organizations.
Maria Garcia: Yeah, I experience it. I hear people, and I see it out in the community. I think it’s made a palpable difference. I think what fascinates me about that program is when we talk about access I think there are two crucial tenets of what make a cultural organization accessible to the public. One is obviously it has to be logistically accessible. We’re talking about cost and transportation and all of that, but also the cadence with which the organization speaks to the public. Right? Are they presenting their programming in a way that is resonant with communities who have historically felt that programming is not necessarily– it doesn’t speak to them. Right? And with the EBT card program, you’re thinking about accessibility in both ways, actual accessibility costs, right? Reduced costs. And then all of sort of the soft factors that go into accessibility, which is the messaging to communities that say, “You have a right to be here.”
Anita Walker: This belongs to–
Maria Garcia: “These services are meant for you. This belongs to you. We want you to be here.” And that sort of messaging has made such a huge difference.
Anita Walker: Two things to add onto that, and you are spot-on right on this. Number one, it’s one thing to get people to the threshold. It’s another thing, what happens when they cross the threshold? We don’t want it to be the last time that happens. We want it to be the first of many times, so we spend a lot of time– again, services wrapped around a program– on educating our organizations around cultural competency, about access. We have a program called UP, which we started, I don’t know, seven years– I’m making up a number. Many years ago. I can’t remember, which is really all about accessibility, but I want to get to this point because I think this also kind of takes us back to the beginning of our conversation, and that is why does the government have anything to do with the arts and culture? Because imagine if it didn’t. Then the only history we would have written is the history that those with the wherewithal decided to write down, and the only art that we would have is the art that the very wealthy decided to have commissioned or to pay for. When we put a nickel of state funding, of taxpayer funding, into whether it’s the MFA or your local festival, that means you own it. That means when you walk into the fabulous atrium of a great museum, you don’t have to say, “I’m just a visitor, and this belongs to the Board of Trustees.” You can walk in with confidence and say, “This belongs to me.” That’s what a public investment in the arts is really all about. Our greatest treasure, our history, our memory, our legacy is the arts and culture and history, and who should that belong to? To bring us back to the EBT card program, the thing that just hit me like the brightest light bulb is when I thought about that number, 370,000 times that a person who is struggling to put food on the table, that doesn’t know where their next rent payment is going to come from, who has no transportation. 370,000 times that person was so hungry for something they weren’t getting that they picked themselves up and they took themselves to the concert, to the play, to the museum because they need it, because the arts and culture are what make us human. I spent a good year I think a year or so ago talking about our native son, John F. Kennedy, at his centennial, and we should be quite proud of Massachusetts that it was John F. Kennedy who left a legacy of public support for the arts. Unfortunately he was assassinated before the National Endowment for the Arts was signed into law, but it was his idea, because he believed that a democracy and arts and culture are inseparable, that what freedom makes possible free people make essential, and it is the voice of arts and culture.
Maria Garcia: It’s expression. Right. It’s the manifestation of our shared humanity.
Anita Walker: Exactly. And we’ve even seen recently in the news the possibility, the suggestion, and we’ve seen it through history over all time, the destruction of cultural treasures and assets. That triggers an outrage and an uproar that actually surprises a lot of people, but it shouldn’t because it is our humanity, and so we the public, when I think of us as government, that’s who we are. Government is we the public.
Maria Garcia: So before I let you go I wonder if you can tell me in your tenure here at the Mass Cultural Council, tell me what your two most important values have been, sort of the guiding framework that has led the way for you here and then also how those values have been put into practice when you’ve sort of seized a moment during your time here to put those values into practice and what that looks like.
Anita Walker: I say it all the time, and that is eliminate mistrust. Mistrust is expensive. Mistrust is counterproductive, nonproductive, and when we take a program apart and put it back together, we do it at a very granular level. We use a process improvement strategy called kaizen, which is used in corporations, and when we build a program or redesign a problem, eliminate mistrust is at the heart and soul of it, so we take out steps that are just in there as hoops to jump through. I like to say, “If you see bureaucracy breaking out around here, I want you to stamp it out immediately.” You know what that’s all about? That’s all about us not trusting the public and the public not trusting us, and you can’t make the kind of progress that we’ve made without trusting. How do you make progress with a partner you can’t trust or that doesn’t trust you? Nothing happens. You just run around in circles, so eliminate mistrust is probably the first value that is part and parcel of our design of all of our programs and our relationship with the field. To really sit with these organizations and listen to what their needs are and then connect them and provide the kind of services and support that they need. That doesn’t happen in an environment with mistrust. It is slow and patient, but it has to be authentic and genuine, and I can say that there is not a single person on the staff here at the Mass Cultural Council who isn’t dedicated and passionate about the success of our field.
Maria Garcia: So eliminating mistrust, one value. What’s the second value?
Anita Walker: I don’t know if you’d call it a value, but I do think it really revolves around service. We are here to serve the public. We’re a funder. Most of our constituents think of us as a funder, hopefully also as a partner and as a resource. In the funding world today I think there’s a tendency for funders to create an agenda that is of their interest or that’s popular or the buzzword of the day and sort of inflict it on their grantees. It’s almost more transactional. It feels more like a funder says, “Here’s the way we think things should be done in your field, so we’ll give you a grant if you do that.” In a way that feels to me like the funder is hiring an organization, an artist, or whatever to do the thing the funder wants, and I feel like our approach is, “You tell us what your needs are, what your community needs are. We trust you. We believe you know. We believe you know what is needed in your little corner of the world. Now we’re here to support and serve you to do your job better,” and I just think it’s a different approach.
Maria Garcia: You’re not trying to parachute into a community, an organization.
Anita Walker: It’s funny. We redesigned our community division within the last couple of years, and we brought some new staff onboard, and of course if you’re new staff member you say, “What do you want me to do? What do you want? What should I do? What should I do?” “Well, I want you to go visit, this team of six, all 329 local cultural councils in Massachusetts.” “Okay. We’ll go visit them all. What should we do when we get there?” “Nothing.”
Maria Garcia: Listen.
Anita Walker: “I want you to listen, learn, listen. They’re all different. Their needs are different. Go out–Again, Cultural Investment Portfolio. We spent the first, again, four years on the rounds not telling anybody what to do, just listening, and that is so powerful. The power of being quiet and listening.
Maria Garcia: Well, it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you.
Anita Walker: You did a really good job. You can come and do this any day.
Maria Garcia: I think I’ll pass. I’ll leave that to you, but thank you so much for having me.
Anita Walker: Well, our interviewer today, our host today was Maria Garcia, senior editor of the ARTery, WBUR’s arts and culture team. It has been an absolute pleasure to have you here.
Maria Garcia: Thank you, Anita. It’s been wonderful to be here.
Narrator: To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit creativemindsoutloud.org.