Transcript – Episode 89

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.

Brian Boyles: The humanities are human beings interpreting what human beings do. They are history, they are philosophy, but I really believe that they are us reflecting on the lives that we lead.

Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Brian Boyles, and he is the new Executive Director of Mass Humanities. And welcome to our program.

Brian Boyles: Thanks so much for having me.

Anita Walker: All right, I’m just going to hit you with the hard question first: What are the humanities?

Brian Boyles: So, this is a timeless question. It’s– we would call, almost, a humanities question, in that there are many interpretations, but there is a core of fact around it. The humanities are human beings interpreting what human beings do. They are history, they are philosophy, but I really believe that they are us reflecting on the lives that we lead, the work that we do. And so we often think of them in the context of visual arts, and I think the simple answer is, when you look at the painting on the wall, we are the piece of text next to it, telling you who this artist was, where they’re from, and what they were thinking when they were doing that work. That’s a short answer, but I do think that the beauty of the humanities is that they are more of something that we see living out in the world, rather than being able to just slap a label on, here and there.

Anita Walker: So, unfortunately, I feel like we are in a position where we have to explain why it matters: why the humanities matter. Why do we have a Mass Humanities? I’m reading in the newspaper that liberal arts courses, history– there’s no time for that in college anymore, because we’ve got to learn to code. I mean, how do you cope with that?

Brian Boyles: Well, it’s interesting, because I think we often hear about it in the context of the academy, and certainly we really are big fans and supporters of scholarship and universities and the work that needs to be done to turn those numbers around. Mass Humanities is very dedicated to public humanities, to being that bridge between the great work that’s done in all these fantastic universities in Massachusetts and communities around the Commonwealth. We really believe that stuff needs to live out there in the public, and we also believe that it’s a two-way street. You know, that information that’s generated in the academy should be very influenced by the voices of the people that are actually out there living that work, remembering those times, interpreting their futures. All of that stuff needs to be a dialogue, and I think Mass Humanities stands sort of at the crux of that, and is a nexus for that interplay between the two sides. To me, though there may be a crisis when it comes to enrollment in classes, I do think that on the ground and out here, I think if we look at all kinds of different climates that we’re facing, they demand the humanities. I think that the crises that we’re facing as a country, the more the humanities can be part of that conversation, the better. So I’m optimistic that, while we’ll always have to explain what they are, their time sort of over in the corner is coming quickly to an end.

Anita Walker: I kind of think about how you explain, “What is air?” We just have to have it. That’s like, “What is the humanities?”

Brian Boyles: Yeah.

Anita Walker: That’s how important it is.

Brian Boyles: Yeah. We have to know why our towns are there. You know, we need to know why our families came there, and we need to know how democratic society works. All of that kind of things come through the humanities, primarily, and it’s urgent.

Anita Walker: So, Mass Humanities– you are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. You are one of our partner organizations, and truly joined at the hip with the Mass Cultural Council, and you also have a relationship with a federal funder, the National Endowment for the Humanities. So you’re kind of like a cousin of the Mass Cultural Council, right?

Brian Boyles: I like that term. Yes, we’re definitely part of the family.

<both laugh>

Anita Walker: So talk to us a little bit about how your work manifests itself in cities and towns in Massachusetts.

Brian Boyles: Sure. So, Mass Humanities is state-affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s been around for a little over– we’re in our 45th year, actually, as a matter of fact right now. We were founded in 1974, and the idea was that the federal government, as it did believe what the National Endowment for the Arts believed, that culture and arts and the humanities are the property of every resident in the United States. The work that we do is to support communities who are doing humanities work in the public square. So we do that as primarily a granting agency. We give out– you know, around 100 organizations receive funds from us through our grants program, about half a million dollars a year, with help from MCC and NEH and our private donors. And then we do programs like the Reading Frederick Douglass program, where we take a more active role in those communities’ work. We bring Frederic Douglass’s work to, literally, the public square, by giving grants out for folks to read the great work of that abolitionist who has so many ties to Massachusetts. A big part of that is the July 4th celebrations that we do on Boston Common, but it happens all over Massachusetts. The Clemente Course, which you and I have talked a lot about, is, I think, really the DNA of the organization, and that’s something we’ve been doing for over 15 years now. This is a course that really targets working people: people who traditionally do not receive that elite humanities education through a college or university. These are folks that come in twice a week for seven months, and study philosophy, history, art history, creative writing, with university professors, for university credit through Bard College; but more importantly, to really get them more a sense that they are part of the fabric of this great story of Massachusetts, that they understand the context with which they walk through the streets of their towns and cities. And I think that aside from maybe being able to go on to higher education, we find that having that bedrock in the humanities, and also in a community of people, even if it’s 15 of them studying in Dorchester or Brockton or New Bedford or Worcester or Springfield, you know, the working mother that comes together with her neighbors to talk about Plato, she has a bond with those people that we know lasts. There are alumni groups. There is work that continues to be done. The other programs that we do, and I think when I think about the future, are to ask, “All right, these people have shown this commitment, and we know that there are people all over Massachusetts who need support for getting ahead in life, who need to be part of your EBT program. How can we stick with these people? How can we fund more projects that they’re going to be interested in, where their stories can be told?” And I think that we have a track record of doing that, and this is where it comes back to this idea, “What are the humanities?” Well, they’re that conversation over a dinner table about the documentary film that everybody just watched together. I think it’s as simple as that, in some ways.

Anita Walker: You know, I remember a couple of years ago, I think it was at the national level, the National Endowment for the Humanities sort of took on this mission of encouraging this thing called “civility.” And you– this is not your first humanities organizations that you’ve been part of. In fact, you come to us from Louisiana, if I remember correctly. Civility– it’s not gotten any better since that was introduced into the lexicon.

Brian Boyles: True. True. And I think that it’s good to look back and ask yourself, you know, what happened there? <laughs> Because I think there was a pretty hopeful moment, and that’s been… I think it’s been about eight years now, that that happened. It– to me, I think that it’s a– that was a great thought, and it was an attempt by a former chair of the NEH to do something to get between this very partisan outbreak that was happening. It can’t just be a speaking tour, and it really can’t even be a grant line. It needs to be a more active engagement with communities around what are the issues they’re facing. What are historic or political track records that have led them to that, and getting to a place where they can really reflect on it. I don’t know that we’re going to necessarily get to a place where we’re all nicer to each other. I just– that’s not just our work, right? But I think that– and I think we’ve seen this in those eight years, and we had been doing that before, and you guys certainly do it through the work that you support. We are trying to bring together people in common spaces where they can share conversations, even if it is around Plato. You know, that exercise, I think, is– it excites me to think that, as bad as things are right now, it’s just more sign that they need a different type of humanities exercise, but that that’s the direction that we could go in.

Anita Walker: So, when you came to Massachusetts from Louisiana, how did you see the landscape here for this work, compared to where you were from?

Brian Boyles: Well, I’d say that in Louisiana, you have a fantastic indigenous culture that has impressed the globe, and is– it continues to be influential. You also have challenges, most recently with Hurricane Katrina, and then just vast cuts of state funding to all kinds of different programming. And you have deep poverty. So the humanities organization there, in some ways there’s so many directions you can go in, because there’s so much need. And I think it was a great training ground for me, because I didn’t see a limit to where the humanities could live. If there was a problem around public housing, or if there was a problem around public health, I didn’t say, “Well, that’s not my lane.” I tried to figure out, and we tried to figure out as an organization, to the point that that organization now runs Head Start centers, how can the humanities be brought to bear here? In Massachusetts, we just have a wealth of fantastic organizations and institutions, and people doing great work in 350-some towns. <laughs> So I think, for me, I’m very much still getting the lay of the land, and so I hesitate to give you my read on the landscape. I’d rather off-line talk to you <laughs> about that, I think. But I think that… what I find is that I didn’t– you know, I was excited about this job because of Mass Humanities’ track record. I was excited about this job because David Tebaldi did a fantastic job. I was excited about the job because MCC does such a great job to give support to the organization. I didn’t really think so much about how Massachusetts has been such a global leader, not just in the humanities, but in economic and technical, and certainly the history of the republic. Those aspects of it, I think, and the crossroads we’re at now, with the diversity of communities and the question around equity and things like that, again, I feel like Massachusetts is in a position to be a leader through whatever transformation the country’s going to go through, and the humanities, I fundamentally believe, need to be a part of that. So that’s my initial read, is… I’m more excited than I thought I would be, and more optimistic that, though I think we need to find– we need to sort of define our lane, in some ways, because there is such a rich field out there, I’m starting to see what that might be. And I also feel like the need that’s out there, that we can meet, is deep. And I think that it’s an exciting time to imagine where Massachusetts could go, and how it could continue to be a beacon.

Anita Walker: We’ve talked a little bit about the work in general, of content of the work, but a lot of our listeners are executive directors or leaders of organizations and nonprofits, and we’re always interested in hearing how a person navigates stepping into a position that has been held by someone for a very long time. And you mentioned David Tebaldi, your predecessor, who– 30-plus years, I think, as the head of Mass Humanities. Talk about how you thought about stepping into a position that had such longevity in your predecessor.

Brian Boyles: I’ve been very fortunate. David had thought through this transition, the board had thought through the transition, and then David continues to be there for me, as recently as last week, going to the State House to meet some folks. I think that transitions are difficult, and I had gone through one in Louisiana, so I had some familiarity around that. Continuity in the operation is the most important thing. It needs to be… externally and internally, people need to know payroll still works the same right now. The grant process still works the same. I may come in with all kinds of ideas about where we could go. I’m not interested in manifesting that in the first six months, or even a year, because the field doesn’t deserve that sort of disruption right now. They need Mass Humanities to continue to play that role, as we decide on, as a group, what our vision would be. It’s also my feeling that there has to be a shared vision. Even if I know, “Here are the three things I really want to see happen,” I want to make sure that that’s gone through with the staff, and with board committees, and with the board, and with partners. One, because I don’t know Massachusetts well enough, and I do believe that the organizations need to respond– they need to respond to their landscape where they’re at. It’s not a cookie-cutter solution. But two, because I hope that in five years, we are at a place where all of those constituents feel like we’re moving together, and it’s not, you know, Brian’s out on a horse somewhere, deciding we’re going to do this or that, finding funds here, and asking us to do this here. I– you know, I have no interest in that. And, fortunately, I have a board and a staff that’s talented enough that it would be… it’d be silly to do that. So it’s a– I think it’s a transition for a bunch of people. It’s not just me. And I think I try and stay really aware of that. I also need to balance between being out there and meeting as many people as possible, because I do think, in a transition, it’s very important that folks don’t feel like someone was there for a very long time, and he’s gone, and who knows what happens now? There needs to at least be somebody showing up smiling, listening, doing all that work, and balancing all that work externally with… I need to get to know the staff well. I need to know how my voicemail works, and when the trash gets taken out– all that.

Anita Walker: You need to be everywhere.

Brian Boyles: It feels like it. And again, after we’re done, I need a lot of advice on that, because I think it’s a tough balance, right? I mean, it’s– you have to be there for a lot of different groups.

Anita Walker: I think it’s just wonderful that you’re finding an opportunity to get out and around Massachusetts, because even though we’re a small state, every place is different. There are no copycats or cookie cutters anywhere in Massachusetts. And I remember when I first arrived, I was so impressed by the depth of sense of place, and sense of pride of place. And it feels like that’s part and parcel what you’re looking for.

Brian Boyles: Yeah. I think that’s exactly what we tap into, is what’s the root of that pride, and how, if you’re new to that area, how do you tap into that? You know, how can your expression through creativity or through storytelling join up with that, without being watered down? But yeah, you’re hitting it right on the head. It’s a place of so many people who care so deeply about that very specific place, that neighborhood. And, again, I didn’t know that when I got here, and it’s actually– though it makes it difficult to be able to understand it, and it’ll take– well, you tell me how long it takes. But I think that’s– you know, that’s the bread and butter for what our work is. So, you know, it makes me feel good that we’ll be able to contin– that learning process, for me, is the learning process for the organization, and it’s part of the work for 45 years.

Anita Walker: So, as you’re just getting started and getting going, five years from now, what do you want to look back and say?

Brian Boyles: My belief is that when you are an organization that works statewide, it’s very hard for anyone to get to know you. They may get funds from you, year after year. The director may show up once every other year and meet some people. But you don’t have a foothold in any one community, really. You’re not always there when they decide to convene around those issues I was talking about. I believe I was brought here to raise visibility, broadly. And I think there are partnerships, whether it’s with local media or some national organizations, where that might be– you know, we can raise the flag a little higher. But I would like, in five years, to say, “In those cities”– and I’m throwing this out there. It may be five other cities. But in those cities where we have Clemente right now, in Boston, in Brockton, in New Bedford and Worcester and Springfield, that people in those communities knew that they wanted to have us at the table; that we needed to be part of the conversations around where those cities were going. Because we had been there, we were committed, and we had funded good work. And they saw us as a local organization, even if we’re a statewide organization. You know, how to do that, how to staff that, how to navigate what the local landscapes are, that’s a lot of the next five years’ worth of work. But folks will tell you, “We’ve never heard of you guys,” or, “We don’t know who your are,” or– I’ll be candid with our listeners. I was in Northampton, meeting the mayor. That’s where our offices are. And he had never heard of us. He’s been mayor for seven years. It’s a nature of the work that we’re a little bit behind the scenes, but I don’t want, in five years, for any of those mayors to think that. They need to meet our work through their communities. And if we’re there, then we can really– you and I can come back and talk about doing really big things in those next five years. But the visibility challenge, that’s the one that… yeah, that I’m going to really prioritize.

Anita Walker: Well, I would say to people in Massachusetts, stay tuned, because Brian Boyles has been to almost as many cities as I have, and I’ve been here 12 years.

<both laugh>

Anita Walker: And every time I hear you talk, you are listing off places, and I’m thinking, “This guy is getting around.” So, if you haven’t seen him yet, if you look, you will see him soon. Brian Boyles, Executive Director of Mass Humanities, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

Brian Boyles: Thank you so much, Anita.

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