Mass Cultural Council chief tours local arts venues

  • From left, state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, Michael Bobbitt, the new executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, and Christopher “Monte” Belmonte and Linda Tardiff of the Shea Theater Arts Center in Turners Falls, meet Friday as part of a tour Bobbitt was doing of Hampshire and Franklin counties. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 9/12/2021 5:00:28 PM

Taking the helm of the state’s largest arts organization in the middle of a pandemic is no easy task.

But Michael J. Bobbitt, the executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, said he’s had some experience navigating crises — and he’s confident he’ll be able to help the state’s arts institutions get through this one, too.

Bobbitt, a playwright, choreographer and former theater manager, joined the Mass Cultural Council in February. On Friday, he toured several arts and culture sites in Hampshire and Franklin counties, including the Academy of Music, the Northampton Community Arts Trust, the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Fine Arts Center, the Shea Theater Arts Center in Montague and Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, breaking bread with members of the local arts community and hearing their stories about coping with COVID-19.

During a visit to Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, where he chatted with A.P.E. Associate Director Lisa Thompson and Executive Director Anne Woodhull, Bobbitt said it was his first visit to the region, though he’d driven through the area before. He moved to Massachusetts in 2019 from the Washington D.C. area to become the artistic director of New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, just outside Boston.

“It’s great to get a look at some of the (artistic) places here,” he said, adding that the Pioneer Valley has a good reputation in the Boston area for its artistic offerings. He said he’s known Richard Michelson, the poet, children’s book author and Northampton gallery owner, for several years and has spoken with children’s book author Mo Willems, who also lives in Northampton.

He also noted that state legislators, such as Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, have been key supporters of additional state funding for arts organizations (Comerford joined Bobbitt on his day-long trip through the valley).

Bobbitt, whose first entry into the arts was as a musician, called his position with Mass Cultural Council “the best job I’ve ever had,” noting that as much as he’s enjoyed working inside the arts, heading the council “gives me the chance to meet so many others who are in the field and to see what they’re doing across the state.”

With the pandemic, that role has taken on added importance. In April, the Mass Cultural Council said about 900 arts organizations statewide had lost an estimated $484 million due to COVID-19, with more than 30,600 jobs affected, while nearly 3,000 individual artists, teaching artists and others in the field lost more than $30 million from canceled gigs and other events.

Bobbitt said he’s been working closely with state legislators and others on Beacon Hill to make the case for increased funding for the arts, not just to help struggling artists and venues, but to support businesses connected to the arts such as restaurants and hotels.

“We want to show that the arts have a real economic value beyond just cultural value — that this can be an economic force multiplier,” he said. “If you invest in the arts, you invest in so many other areas.”

He said state funding so far for the arts has been good, but that the Mass Cultural Council and other organizations are pushing state legislators, as well as the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, to earmark $575 million for the arts from $5.3 billion in funding allocated to Massachusetts through the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Bobbitt said he had previous experience making connections with state and federal legislators over funding decisions for the arts when he headed a theater in Maryland.

“We had some (funding) crises there as well,” he recounted, “so I’ve kind of learned how to lean into them, to see them as opportunities to make things better.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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