Mass Cultural Council Head Steps Down After 13 Years | WAMC

Mass Cultural Council Head Steps Down After 13 Years

Jul 1, 2020

Anita Walker has stepped down after 13 years as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The state agency doles out state and federal funding to non-profit cultural organizations, schools, communities, and individuals artists throughout the commonwealth. Walker spoke with WAMC about her career, from taking up the role in 2007 to how cultural work has changed over her tenure.

WALKER: I came here in 2007 to Massachusetts from Iowa. That's that little rural state in the middle of the country. And I had run the Department of Cultural Affairs there, which included the state arts agency, as well as the State Historical Society. And Massachusetts was recruiting for a new executive director. And so I applied. Had never, ever been to New England before in my entire life. So it was a great leap, a great adventure, and I am so glad I took it. I have been so happy here these last 13 years. And I have felt very fortunate and very lucky to live in Massachusetts. It is so rich in the arts and culture. I get chills when I walk across the common on the way up to Beacon Hill to talk to legislators just thinking about the history that's taken place on that earth. So it's been a wonderful 13 years.

WAMC: Looking back over that time, what are the moments that stand out to you as indicative of the best of the experience?

I think the best of the experience has been the fact that we’ve been able to take this little state arts agency, and really turn it into a powerhouse of innovation. If I think about all of the new programs and new initiatives we've launched over the last 13 years, it's really changed the way we do business. I think we were seen primarily as a grant maker, an agency that was was staffed by administrators, and that sent out checks on a regular basis to artists and organizations. And now we're seen as a comprehensive service organization. Every single dollar that we send out of the agency is wrapped in a package of programs. The people in the field in every corner of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts knows our staff members by name, by first name. They're often commenting to me, "Oh, I saw Michael last week," or "Oh, I saw Elisa last week." And that's because we see our work as happening in the field. I can't tell you how many times I've been to Western Massachusetts. I think I- The last time I counted over a two year period was about hundreds of times, because we see the work in communities and we want to be where the work is. When I think about the programs we started, there are so many that I'm proud of. Everything from the EBT card to Culture, which today has close to half a million users. These are people who never would have had an opportunity to participate in the arts and culture. Our creative Youth Development Program is now both a national and international leader in using the arts as a vehicle of agency for young people, our most vulnerable young people. One of the first programs we launched here when I came was the Big Yellow School Bus, connecting kids in schools with the cultural assets in their communities. Our Stars program, which was a small program putting artists residences in schools. Now we invest more than a million dollars and we're reaching hundreds of school districts across the Commonwealth that we had never participated in before. Our operating support program, which is actually one of the most important for organizations, that unrestricted operating support, used to be a competitive grant program, but now it's called the Cultural Investment Portfolio. And it is a true partnership between our team, our staff, the Commonwealth, and these incredibly important organizations all across the state. We've organized our communities division so that we're in communities more than ever before. Our cultural district program, which we launched I want to say less than 10 years ago. Now, just this month at our council meeting, we approved the 50th cultural district in Massachusetts, in Fall River. We have more cultural districts in Massachusetts than any other state in the nation. We have a festivals program. Nobody else funds festivals, which we know how important that is to the vitality of our communities. The Cultural Facilities Fund which is investing in the infrastructure of our organizations, the bricks and mortar. 13 consecutive years of work and investment, over 130 million dollars invested in our very, very important and vital infrastructure. And also this year, we made the first ever gaming mitigation grants. So it's been a real busy 13 years. But again, I come back to the service of the agency and the trust relationship we've established with our constituents.

I'm interested in how trends in cultural programming have changed in that 13 year period. Have you seen some things become more popular, some things wane and fall out of the spotlight?

You know, I think if there's one sort of guiding light that I have seen grow in intensity over the last 13 years, it's the attention to accessibility of our organizations. You know, there is sort of an old stereotype that the arts are for the elite, but increasingly and over the last 13 years, I've seen such innovation, such outreach by our organizations to make sure that they are inclusive and that they are available in a way where people feel comfortable participating. Certainly in the Berkshires and Western Massachusetts with so many wonderful outdoor summer venues, that's a great way for people to participate. Our Up Program, which is another new program that we started within the last 13 years is really focused on access, especially for people who have disabilities and may not typically have seen a way for them to come into theaters or into museums and enjoy the experience the same way everybody else does. So I think that if there's one thing that I know that the field is focused on, and now more than ever, in light of the great attention to the disparities facing people who are of color, our organizations are really standing up and saying it's time for us to change and make sure that we are not carrying the baggage of the past and we're making sure that we are open and welcoming to all.

What’s it like leaving this role at a time when the cultural community of Massachusetts is facing an unprecedentedly fraught experience of the shutdown related to the pandemic?

You know, this was not my plan, Josh, when I decided to retire, and I've actually been thinking about it for a couple of years. Finally made the decision last fall. And one of the reasons that I thought this was a wonderful time for me to transition was that I felt so good about the agency. And I still do. The agency is strong, we have top notch staff. My colleagues are the best in the business. They are high level content experts. And as a matter of fact, we have just rolled out our newest initiative, which is Culture Rx, which really links arts and cultural participation to health and well-being. So literally two weeks before the COVID hit Massachusetts, I announced my retirement. We were on our way to I think a pretty solid budget increase, revenues were on the rise in Massachusetts, and then all of a sudden we were smacked flat by the COVID crisis. Nevertheless, the agency really performed in an emergency. We rolled out seven grant programs while everyone was sequestered from home. Five of those were brand new grant programs, many of them really targeting assistance for organizations that been hit by COVID. And as a matter of fact, our Safe Harbors program, which provided not only a stipend to the organizations in our portfolio, but also a series of webinars to help organizations access the federal CARES Act funding that had become available through the FDA. 100% of the organizations that participated in our webinars, which we rolled out in a matter of three days, 100% of them were successful in their applications for CARES Act funding. And we brought $21 million of federal funding into the state as a result of those Safe Harbors program.

What should be the top of the docket for your successor for the MCC?

Well, the first thing I think any new leader would do would was take some time. Take some time to learn about the organization, to know the organization, to understand the programs and initiatives that are doing such amazing work in the Commonwealth. And take the time to travel. Get out and about across the state, hopefully COVID will lift and we will be able to do more traveling and meeting people one on one and listening to the field, listening to the constituents, listening what their concerns are. We have an attitude going into the next fiscal year that it's going to be about recovery, rebuilding and renewal. This is going to be a basically a start from scratch year for so many of our organizations, that they've been flattened by the COVID. So how can we serve our organizations to rebuild their business models to come back strong and resilient? I think that's probably going to be the first order of business. And right next to that is the issue of racial injustice. There is a legacy of white privilege in our organizations. And as long as we're rebuilding, this is the perfect time to look at square in the eye and defeat it.

Anita, any last thoughts? This is your big exit interview after such a long tenure at the head of such a fascinating organization. Is there anything about that experience you want to make sure is communicated to folks who are interested in your work at the MCC?

You know, I keep coming back to the thing that I think is really the most powerful quality of the Mass Cultural Council, and it's the relationship that we have with our field, the relationship that we have with our constituents. We are able to accomplish so much more, because we work in partnership on a basis of trust. That is nothing that you buy, that a grant can return to you, as a receipt or a dividend. That is something that is earned every single day by providing service in partnership with our field. And that's the thing that I'm most proud about.