HubWeek Change Maker: Kara Elliott-Ortega

Chief of Arts and Culture, City of Boston

HubWeek Change Maker Kara Elliott-Ortega —WBUR & HubWeek

Kara Elliott-Ortega is an urban planner in the arts focusing on cultural organizing and the role of arts and creativity in the built environment and community development. Prior to becoming the Chief of Arts and Culture, she served as the Director of Policy and Planning for the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture. Kara’s work to implement Boston Creates, Boston’s 10-year cultural plan, includes creating new resources for local artists, implementing the City’s first Percent for Art program, and supporting creative place-based strategies. Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, Kara is a graduate of the University of Chicago and received her Master in City Planning from MIT. 

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Lindsay Gearheart: Tell me a little about yourself and how you started working for the City of Boston.

Kara Elliott-Ortega: I have been working for the City of Boston for four and half years now, but I came in as the Director of Planning and Policy for the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture. I have only been in the role of Chief for just over a year. It’s been really good because I came into the office with a background as a city planner, specifically to work on the Boston Creates cultural plan, which is the city’s first cultural plan of any kind, and the office is still pretty new. It’s only been around for six years, so it was an exciting time to start working for the city, and a very cool role for me because I have always worked at the intersection of arts, community organizing, and planning. There aren’t a lot of jobs like this. In that way, it’s kind of a dream.

LG: You actually referenced one of my first questions: I wanted to ask a little about Boston Creates. Could you tell me about that plan? 

KEO: We needed a plan as a city to figure out what we are talking about when we talk about arts and culture. The plan was an 18-month community process with super creative engagement techniques that tried to get a sense of what’s really happening in the arts and culture sector and understand how everybody participates in creativity — whether you’re cooking dinner with your family, gardening, or singing in your church. There’s a multitude of ways that people create, and we’re trying to move away from this idea that has been pretty traditional in Boston that arts and culture is only about classical music or famous museums. 

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We had a long process via town hall meetings and interviews. We did a community engagement meeting at somebody’s house specifically for individual artists where everyone made bread together while they talked. It was called, “What Artists Knead.” From that, we came up with a plan that has five goals for over 10 years and brainstormed a lot of ideas about what the city and the people of Boston can do to move those goals forward. It’s unique because most city plans are just about, “Our office is going to do X, Y, Z,” but this was really about what we are all going to do.

The first goal of the plan is about infrastructure for organizations in the city, so thinking about what is the funding for organizations, and what’s the plan for how we’re going to help people find security in their facilities long term so they don’t get displaced from the city. There is a goal about working with individual artists, who we heard a lot from during the process, who felt like they didn’t have a lot of places to turn to for support, and they’re really the creative engine of the city. The third goal is about equity, and how we’re going to equitably resource but also equitably celebrate all of the cultures that are here, including thinking about immigrant cultures and some communities that have been here for generations but still don’t see themselves in the Boston story. We’re thinking about arts being integrated everywhere, and a lot of that is through public art, so how can we make sure that the second you leave your home or go to school or go to a community center that you have opportunities to access art and culture. The last goal is about future funding and support, so how are we going to work with other sectors and create new partnerships that move this work forward. 

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LG: One of the components I wanted to learn a little more about is the Opportunity Fund. I saw that this is the third year of the Opportunity Fund. What can the fund be used for and how do you decide who receives it?

KEO: It’s a really exciting program because it’s super responsive to what an individual artist actually needs. Anyone who is doing creative work and needs a little bit of money to take advantage of an opportunity can apply to this fund throughout the year. It’s $1,000 for help with professional development, for getting things together for a show you are in, or whatever that little thing is where you need a little bit of money to bridge a gap. It also helps support artists bringing events or workshops to the community. That fund goes up to $2,000. 

It’s a good way for us to see what’s actually going on in the city at a real community level. We get a lot of applications for it; we made around 200 grants last year and we’re going to do that again this year. We’ve gotten really good feedback from artists that they feel like it’s a grant that meets them where they are. And it’s not something you have to jump through a million hoops for, you don’t provide a complicated final report, it’s just giving you what you need. We’ve seen artists take advantage of conferences in other parts of the county where they get an amazing professional development opportunity, and then they might come back and apply the next year for a grant for a public event that shares what they learned or what they worked on. We’ve also seen cases where it might be the first time someone has ever applied for funding, so they get through that and they sign up for a newsletter and find out about other opportunities that might be at a higher funding level. We get to see somebody go through the process and use it as a stepping stone to other opportunities. 

LG: That’s really cool that you get to see them grow as artists. I saw Boston recently named its inaugural Youth Poet Laureate. What led to the creation of that position, and what are the goals for that position? 

KEO: We are really excited about it, it’s something that our Poet Laureate has been interested in doing for a long time. She works a lot with youth in her other roles, and spoken word is so popular right now. Boston has always been a literary city, and I don’t know if people know that there is this really great scene for young people with reading and writing poetry. We really wanted to invest in it, and the Mayor has been incredibly supportive of the Poet Laureate program, so this was just a natural extension of that. Our office doesn’t do a lot of work right now directly with young people, so we are really excited about doing more of that in the future. This seems like a great way to start building relationships with organizations that do have a direct connection with youth here through the arts. 

We had a big process and a very professional review panel. People had to submit their poems and their vision of what they would do with the Youth Poet Laureateship. That’s how we got to our finalists. We had an amazing event at the library where all the semi-finalists got to read poems, and then the three finalists read — I have to say all three were amazing. They all got some great prizes and access to museums, and we’re actually going to send all three of them with the Poet Laureate, Porsha Olayiwola, to a writers workshop retreat. 

We announced live that Alondra Bobadilla was going to be our Youth Poet Laureate. She’s been amazing and everything we could want for that position: somebody who is communicating the power of poetry and the arts and the importance of young people to express themselves. I know that she is really excited about leading some workshops for other young people at Boston Public Library, where she will have an official desk in the teen center. We are going to help her work on her first book of poetry. I have to say that the Poet Laureate, Porsha, has been instrumental in wanting to do this and also thinking about what we can do to support her growth as an artist and a writer.

LG: You mentioned that you haven’t gotten to work with a lot of youth, so how is Boston working on enhancing arts education for all its students in the public schools?

KEO: That’s a really good question and it’s so important. We are really proud of the work that has been done through BPS and Edvestors through their arts expansion program. They have been working hard over a decade now to increase access for youth in BPS to arts education and arts experiences like field trips. They fund arts organizations to partner with schools and bring theatre workshops, music instruction, and more into the schools to make sure that all young people have at least some access to the arts. 

I think the challenge now is to make sure that all the students who get that first experience have the opportunity to develop that skill and a path for themselves. I think there’s really great progress happening all the time on this. Even this past summer, there was a new internship program through Edvestors, Art Expansion Initiative, and Bloomberg that actually placed people in arts and cultural organizations for an internship outside of high school. This is something that has to be invested in on all fronts, and we’re definitely seeing progress. 

We’ve also been working with quite a few local organizations on convening teaching artists. All artists for the most part do some form of teaching, and yet there isn’t an organized teaching artist group in the city of Boston that provides resources or accreditation, so we have been trying to figure out what our goal is in helping to bring professional development and also legitimacy to teaching artistry. It is something that is a developed skill that is related to all sorts of things from early childhood development to creating better pathways for young people.

LG: A last question: Could you talk a little about the Boston AIR program and how the artists and residents collaborate with the city?

KEO: This is a program that was a pilot initiative for a year, and grant funded for another year, and then last year officially came on the city budget, which is a big accomplishment for us. This year we’ll fund five artists from the city of Boston to work in collaboration with city departments on different issues and challenges that the city is trying to tackle. The idea is that the artist brings their artwork and their creativity to that problem and really collaborates with and co-designs a project after a period of three to four months of research with that department.

So we are not hiring an artist like in a traditional residency to come in and just be here and do their work. They are really charged with building a relationship with that department and understanding the nuance of what the issues are there, and then developing a project that will help address that. That could be shifting people’s perceptions of a problem, it could be creating a better way of organizing community engagement, or it could be something that is much more exploratory. 

I think this is part of the value of artists, especially compared to a bureaucracy, to stem where we are trying to count the number of potholes that are filled and that’s how we define success. It can be a really challenging environment for iterating and allowing the exploration that then leads to outcomes you might not have known you wanted. 

A really good example from last year is an artist, Karen Young, who does taiko drumming. She had this drumming circle where she taught people a Japanese drumming method. What came out of that was some creative cultural organizing. This group of women really bonded, they felt really empowered by doing this. Some of them had never played an instrument in their lives and here they are hitting this big drum and feeling like they wanted to do something with this newfound sense of agency together. So they identified a problem in their community, which is a dangerous crosswalk outside the community center, and worked with the city to call attention to this. They had an event that brought attention to the problem, and they performed in these amazing neon T-shirts that said “older and bolder,” because that’s what they called themselves. And they were successful: The transportation department worked with them to see if they could get a signal for the crosswalk. 

That’s a good example where we see the value of the artist. Karen Young is an organizer as much as she is an artist and a teacher, and she was able to create space for a community that wouldn’t have been there before, and then figured out how that could lead to something like transportation advocacy. 

LG: That’s a really unique way of solving a problem 

KEO: Yes, and of identifying a problem that we wouldn’t have identified before. It’s not always a clean process, and so a lot of what we’re advocating for in the arts office is to be comfortable with a lack of clarity, a little bit of messiness, and working through that as part of a creative process — which is not the natural way of things in city government. 


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