As Boston’s Chief of Arts and Culture, Julie Burros, AB’86, holds a cabinet-level position that reports to Mayor Marty Walsh. In this role she oversees a portfolio of departments comprising the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture and the Boston Public Library. Prior to her position with the City of Boston, Burros worked for the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), where she was the Director of Cultural Planning. There, she was instrumental in the development of Chicago’s cultural plan, which was released in 2012. In Boston, Burros supervises the staff of the Office of Arts and Culture and the department’s projects, the newest of which is the creation of Boston’s own cultural plan.
As an undergraduate at University of Chicago, Burros studied Sociology. This degree has “been especially helpful in moving to a new city, and figuring out the lay of the land. Understanding people, the context of the neighborhoods, immigrants, and how it has changed over time: I use all of these urban sociology tools that I learned at the U of C,” Burros said. During her tenure at the College, Burros was heavily influenced by the work of former University of Chicago professors Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and Gerald Suttles, all urban sociologists. “The research, curiosity, inquiry, and multi-disciplinary thinking,” emphasized at the University have guided Burros along her professional path, as her work involves a multitude of municipal partners and interfacing with diverse communities.
Following her graduation from the University of Chicago Burros met an urban planner while working as a researcher for a brokerage firm and discovered that she had more than a passing curiosity about the field. She further explored this budding interest in urban planning by attending a summer program at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard for people transitioning to this and other career paths. The Harvard experience affirmed her passion for urban planning, and she was later accepted to Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation where she studied Urban Planning. Through the course of her graduate program, Burros found resonance with her University of Chicago experience, especially in how urban sociology and geography play a role in urban planning.
When she returned to Chicago, Burros worked for a planning consulting firm before transitioning to the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning. There, she discovered the role of DCASE in implementing arts and culture in city planning, leading to her taking a position with that department to further explore this more “niche” aspect of city development. While serving at DCASE, Burros worked on a variety of projects that she said culminated with the 2012 Chicago cultural plan and leading its implementation for two years before being appointed to her current position in Boston. She left Chicago with the goal of pursuing a growth and leadership opportunity, as well as the chance to lead the creation of a cultural plan in another urban context.
The forthcoming cultural plan for the City of Boston is being developed to ensure cultural vitality, or creative capital, in Boston’s neighborhoods. For Burros, this initiative and others like it are important because the impact of creative capital on the health of a city is not an aspect of modern life that gets enough attention. “There are an increasing amount of studies, research, and evidence, so it’s getting better. People are really recognizing that arts and culture, personal creative expression, and community cohesion are very important parts of personal and community health, and they all go together,” she said. Burros noted that a successful, prosperous city will have a way for its residents to express themselves outside of work, and arts and culture are key mechanisms through which governments can provide such outlets away from an otherwise fast-paced, urban existence. Through the process of developing Boston’s cultural plan, Burros and her team have found an intersection between arts and healing that is already established in some communities. “People needs arts and culture, I think, to be healthy people, and cities need arts and culture to be healthy economically and livable places where people can thrive,” Burros said. “It’s a very important and often neglected in the narrative of what a healthy place is, but we’re starting to change that.”
The planning phase of Boston’s cultural plan is called Boston Creates. Burros noted that this name was deliberately chosen to describe how “the people of Boston will be an instrumental part of creating the plan” through a participatory process. “It also acknowledges that citizens of Boston are creative people who engage in creative endeavors every day,” she said. “Singing in a chorus; gardening and growing vegetables, then cooking a beautiful feast; writing poetry: there are a lot of things we do every day that enhance our personal creative capital, the creative capital of our cities, and the creative capital of the places that we work.”
Boston Creates is in its “Community Conversations” phase as of this writing. For this part of the cultural plan’s development, Burros and her staff created 16 community-based teams that are led by a pair volunteer co-chairs. These teams are now holding meetings in their neighborhoods to talk about arts and culture. As of our interview on August 18, 2015, there have been over 91 community meetings held with over 1,100 Bostonians engaged. These convenings include opportunities for non-English speaking residents of a variety of nationalities to provide their input, and have also taken the form of youth and generation-specific forums to discuss the impact of arts and culture in Boston. Residents who are interested in conducting meeting of their own may also host a “do-it-yourself” conversation with people in their neighborhood, provided they take notes and submit them to the Office of Arts and Culture. This process ensures that regardless of how a meeting on arts and culture comes to fruition, the voices of all those in attendance will be heard by the City.
Burros shared that one key community need that has thus far emerged from these meetings has been a need for space. Though Boston is growing, it is a small city. As well, space is becoming increasingly expensive, and gentrification continues to displace artists. Burros said that one of the ways the cultural development can avoid displacing residents is by building infrastructure with the established community in mind and providing means for ownership of property to people in creative careers. Beyond these in-person meetings, Boston Creates has engaged the help of an artist collective called the Department of Play that is formulated a way to creatively engage people in a vision for the city. Furthermore, Burros explained, Bostonians can participate in the Community Conversations phase of the cultural plan online via Boston Creates website, where they can take a survey and map where creativity is happening throughout the city.
When asked what the major differences between her experiences in Chicago and Boston in the field of cultural policy have been, Burros said that “what’s different about Boston is that it has never had a cultural plan. In Chicago, there had been a cultural plan in 1986, and there had been [in 2012] a lot of people around who participated.” She also notes that, in addition to having a history with a cultural plan, DCASE also has a much larger staff and budget than the team leading Boston Creates. Though a smaller staff and budget may not sound like the tools one needs to create an urban cultural plan from the ground up, Burros sees the lack of history surrounding cultural policy in Boston as a benefit rather than a constraint. “It’s a little bit more of an open field […] because we’re a smaller city, I think it’s easier to be nimble, experimental, and innovative,” Burros said. “Here, the only way to go is up.”