A theatre’s second act, and the future of Boston arts

By Lee Pelton   June 27, 2018

With the re-opening of the Emerson Colonial Theatre, we celebrate not only the restoration and continued operation of a grand, storied theatre, but also the opportunity it creates for the city of Boston to reclaim its leadership in the performing arts — and to continue to transform itself through the arts.

The arts represent a powerful economic engine that contributes significantly to our local and regional economy, and to the entrepreneurial culture for which Boston has become so well known. An Arts Boston report states that “regional arts and cultural organizations infuse nearly $1 billion into the local economy each year through direct spending, and provide 26,000 jobs.”

In addition to the civic and economic benefits, the arts let us see with fresh eyes the landscape of human events and, of course, they help us understand the world in which we live.

This is especially true in the theatre. The theatre helps us explore new ideas and understand each other more deeply. The theatre provides us with that human connection we all seek. And the theatre increases our empathy and understanding for others — something our society so desperately needs.

And yet, not everyone has access to these transformative spaces. Boston, we can do better.

At Emerson College, the members of our community share an innate desire to imagine, to create, and to make a difference in the world. We seek to provide the next generation of creators and storytellers with equitable access to an excellent education, and to the stages and venues where they can make change happen.

To be sure, there is more work to be done. But this responsibility lies not only with higher education. Other Boston institutions, particularly the many businesses that profit from the city’s creative economy, need to recommit themselves to investing in the arts. As my ArtsEmerson colleagues said in a recent Globe op-ed on the topic, “crucial parts of the arts ecology [in Boston] are chronically overlooked — by both the media and local donors.”

Mayor Walsh’s 10-year Boston Creates initiative is a significant step forward. The city’s cultural plan outlines a new strategy to engage partners to support arts programming, broaden the reach of the arts, and infuse the arts more fully in residents’ lives.

For its part, the city has stepped up through a recent $1.8 million investment in public arts, the creation of an Opportunity Fund for local artists, and the new Imagine Boston capital plan.

And yet, this leadership in the arts, which should be both deep and broad across this community, is lacking elsewhere.

A Boston Foundation report showed that corporate support for the arts has diminished across the city, and foundation funding for the arts is low compared to cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

It shouldn’t be such heavy lifting. The arts are profitable.

According to the ArtsBoston report, more than 18 million people are welcomed by Boston’s arts and cultural institutions every year. That’s enough to sell out Fenway Park — 488 times.

The Emerson Colonial also has the capacity to inspire, embrace, and celebrate our city’s emerging diversity and bring people together through performance and cultural experiences.

ArtsEmerson has employed a partnership approach to improving diversity and access. It recently concluded its second Neighborhood Tour of “Mr. Joy,” Daniel Beatty’s play exploring race and class in America, which offered free community performances in several Boston neighborhoods with support from the city and other organizations.

The revitalization of our city’s Theatre District, the re-opening of the Emerson Colonial, and the programming and the community engagement offered by the stage’s new operator, Ambassador Theatre Group, is a move in the right direction for Boston.

At a time when colleges and universities face increasing pressure to consolidate, Emerson’s efforts represent a bold move. When the Emerson Colonial went dark in 2015, we considered several options, including one that would have created a much-needed space for performances and other student-related activities. But in the end, we challenged ourselves to find a way to sustain the Colonial as an operating theater and also meet the needs of our growing student body. That’s because we are committed to our students, committed to our city, and committed to the arts.

Those commitments continue to guide the College, especially as we seek to help re-animate Boylston Street through the renovation and restoration of several buildings, including the historic Little Building. The idea is to create a destination corridor for all in Boston; the re-opening of the Emerson Colonial is part of our long-term vision to enhance and enliven this neighborhood.

This is only the beginning of what we hope to accomplish. As a steward of the Theatre District, we will continue to work closely with the city to bring these ideas to life for all who live, study, work and visit here.

Lee Pelton is president of Emerson College.