Director, choreographer, and playwright Michael Bobbitt has dedicated his professional career to arts leadership. As Executive Director of the MA Cultural Council, Michael is the highest-ranking cultural official in Massachusetts. Before he joined the Council last year, he served as Artistic Director of the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, MA, and the Adventure Theatre-MTC in Maryland. He has served as an Associate Professor of Theatre at both the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and Howard University..
In 2021 he was selected to join artEquity’s second cohort of the BIPOC Leadership Circle. Read more about Michael on the MA Cultural Council website. We spoke a few weeks ago on my Embark podcast. Michael answers a few more questions about the value of the arts in this post.
LS: The council has asked for over 570 million dollars in Covid relief. One state senator said arts and culture is ‘the lifeblood of the Mass economy and needs substantial investments to aid that recovery.’ Are most politicians and policy-makers on board with this concept?
MB: What a great question! I can’t speak to most politicians and policy-makers, but I certainly would hope so. When you look at pre-Covid 19 numbers, the Commonwealth invested $28.2M ($18.2 appropriation and $10M from the Capital Bond budget). In return, the cultural sector put more than $2.3B into the state’s GDP – the 3 largest sector contributing to the economy of the state. In my opinion, this is a strong argument for why the sector needs every penny of this $575M in COVID relief dollars. The Commonwealth’s economy can’t recover without the cultural sector. I’ve truly enjoyed meeting the legislators that I have met. They have been extremely supportive of the cultural sector. This year, the appropriation was $2,1375,000 regular appropriation and a number of ear marks and $10M from the Capital Bond for facilities upgrades. This growth is a gesture of how much they value the cultural sector. And, if there are policy makers out there that aren’t on board with this concept, I’d love ½ hour an hour to convert them. It’s hard to argue with data.
LS: Barring unforeseen problems, Broadway opens to full capacity in mid-September. Given recent conditions, that plan seems iffy. How do you see this culture and entertainment season unfolding? Will we migrate more toward digital rather than live theatre, dance, music?
MB: It’s so hard to predict how things will go. The word “pivot” has become an often used term. It’s no longer a word that I am fond of. I’m sure many people are triggered by this word. I’ve had to pivot soooo much this past 18 months. So, who knows what will happen with Broadway. I’m hoping for the best on Broadway and performing arts everywhere. Previous pandemics and viral outbreaks took years to recover from. Let’s not forget how long it took the field to come back after the polio outbreak. What I do know is that the field, as a whole, is behind on the opportunities that the digital world has to offer. I hope we’ll lean into it more and use the gifts of imagination to set the pace and lead the world into the digital age of art consumption. WE, the cultural sector, is poised to do it and do it well – once we embrace it whole heartedly and discontinue thinking of it as a “stop gap”. When humans make advances in technology, we don’t usually go back. I can’t even find a place to play my old CD’s. Go farther, cultural sector. Invest in technology. I will do my best to find funding to support this.
The consumption of art at home can be amazing when both the producers and patrons invest in it. Look at the awesome-ness of consuming sports at home. In many ways, it’s cooler than going to the games (data scrolls, bio pop ups, colorful commentary, instant replays, drawing on screens, slo-mo, etc.). Can we incorporate some of these ideas into our live work? Tail-gate and Superbowl parties are popular for a reason. Are there versions of these that can happen for docent lead museum tours, dances, and theatrical productions? It will just require the use of imagination and the resources to make it happen. I think the possibilities are endless. Arts orgs need to consider hiring digital experts, budgeting and investing in technology and digital creatives, getting their own streaming platform etc. I think it’s exciting and can compliment the live experience and enhance/grow your audiences. The new tactic will be converting digital audiences to see live performances…not the other way around.
LS: You’re an artist – playwright, director, choreography, musician – and have been a creative director. How does your creative background inform the work you do now on an executive/administrative level?
MB: All of the work that I have done has given me the ability to see the world differently. This is what artists do best. This is what imagination is. I’ve worked my whole life at this, so as an administrator and as I encounter problems – small, large, local and now statewide, I am also easily able to access numerous conceptual solutions. I also think that I am able to empathize with artists and arts leaders in a way that helps them to be heard and seen. I have a strong LOVE of artists, arts administrators and arts leaders and now I have a job, that hopefully can amplify and support their work.
LS: There’s a racial reckoning in culture and the arts. We talked about policies of inclusion and diversity coming from the top, starting with boards of directors, which have historically looked a certain way. What’s your vision of how we become inclusive without being performative?
MB: The big thing for me is that art is subjective and that what each person is attracted to or drawn to comes from their own life experience. So, Salsa dancing is just as amazing as ballet and graffiti is just as amazing as contemporary art. And spoken word is just a amazing as classical literature. And because of this, it all should get supported.
Also, if organizations are predominately white, there has to be an acknowledgement that those organizations were designed to be that way. It didn’t happen by accident. I’m not suggesting that ever predominately white org was designed out of some ill intentions to exclude (though, I’m sure some were). What I am saying is that bias and preference created the business model that leads to predominantly white. And, if you want the benefit, the massive benefits, of multicultural audiences, artists, donors, and volunteers, you have to re-design your business model with multicultural people. It has to be significant and intentional work – or it won’t happen. It also means that we have to LET go of everything that may exclude others. It’s a simple premise, but a LOT of work.
LS: What are your three top priorities for the remainder of this year and 2022?
MB: Supporting the recovery of the Cultural sector is a major way from COVID-19, supporting the sector’s desire to be more equitable, diverse and inclusive and finding significant ways to build artist infrastructure. A fourth, is getting away from my Zoom screen and out into the field to have conversations with the sector.