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A year into his job leading the Mass Cultural Council, Michael Bobbitt sees opportunity amid struggles

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 1/27/2022 Malcolm Gay
Michael Bobbitt, executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, photographed in Roxbury before a tour of the OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center at Forest Hills. © Provided by The Boston Globe Michael Bobbitt, executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, photographed in Roxbury before a tour of the OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center at Forest Hills.

Perhaps the biggest question facing Michael J. Bobbitt in the fall of 2020 was this: Was he ready to trade his life as an artist to become the state’s top arts administrator?

Bobbitt had been in Massachusetts for less than two years, moving north to become the first Black artistic director at Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre. A playwright, choreographer, and director, Bobbitt had been making art for about as long as he could remember.

But by some measures, of course, his career as an artist was already on hold by then, as organizations across the state languished during the pandemic-induced deep freeze. If he were to become executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, Bobbitt would not only have to relinquish his life as an artist, he would also be charged with leading the state’s industry through its darkest hour.

“I started counting in my head the number of shows I’ve worked on, and it’s somewhere close to 400,” said Bobbitt, 49, of realizing he was ready for a new challenge. “The moment I came up with that number, I was like: Oh yeah, I’m good.”

Now, nearly one year into the job, Bobbitt has spent his days crisscrossing the state, meeting with local arts leaders, encouraging politicians to expand pandemic relief for the arts, and touring facilities.

He’s embraced an expansive vision of the MCC, the state’s grant-making agency for cultural organizations. And while the arts continue to struggle amid successive pandemic waves, he’s convinced the crisis presents an opportunity to restructure arts funding, transforming the sector into one that is more affluent, inclusive, easier to navigate, and higher profile than it ever was before.

It’s a tall order for a grant-making agency with an annual appropriation of around $20 million, but working with advocates at MASSCreative, Bobbitt says success relies on convincing legislators to increase support for the arts, and rallying arts leaders to become more politically active.

“There’s a lot of trauma right now, but at the same time there’s a lot of rebirth, renewal, and a realization that what we have been doing needs to change,” he said. “If I had to say what I want my legacy to be, there’d be two things at the top: equitable funding and increased funding for the whole sector.”

It hasn’t been easy, particularly as competing needs — everything from education and climate resiliency to health care and roads — have ballooned across the Commonwealth.

Bobbitt, a relative newcomer, spent much of last year urging legislators to support pandemic relief for the arts. Nevertheless, he was surprised last month when Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a package that allotted just $60 million to the MCC — well below the $575 million a special legislative commission had suggested over the summer.

“It was shocking,” Bobbitt told the Globe at the time.

A few weeks later, however, he was more circumspect, focused on possibilities the money affords.

“I’ll be able to do some good damage with the $60 million,” he said, adding it’s three times the agency’s normal annual allotment. “I don’t think we ever expected to get the full amount.”

Raised by his mother and grandmother in Washington, D.C., Bobbitt was drawn early to the arts. He spent a few years in college, but left to pursue a stage career, performing in regional theater and touring shows, later turning to teaching and choreography.

He was named artistic director of Adventure Theatre in 2007, a children’s theater in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Over the next 12 years, Bobbitt transitioned the theater from a volunteer- to a staff-run organization, later guiding it through a merger with a musical theater school for children.

Meanwhile, he was becoming increasingly involved with arts advocacy and funding, working with legislators, sitting on grant panels, and eventually becoming a board member of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, an advocacy organization.

“Seeing him testify and work with lawmakers, it was clear to me that he was a natural,” said Nicholas Cohen, the group’s executive director. “He didn’t even really need training, he just got it.”

Privately, though, Bobbitt’s relationship and health were on the rocks. He was overweight, in his early 40s, and staring down a host of potential health issues he said included pre-diabetes, pre-arthritis, and heart arrhythmia, among other things.

“I remember the doctor pulling out his prescription pad and saying, OK, you need to change your life, because the 50s are going to be terrible,” recalled Bobbitt.

Bobbitt, determined to avoid medication, embarked on a “massive self-care healing routine.” He exited the relationship, took a leave of absence to work with a weight-loss specialist, entered therapy, and overhauled his diet — all while “overcorrecting” at the gym.

“Six months later I was 100 pounds lighter,” said Bobbitt, an adoptive father who recently celebrated his two-year wedding anniversary with his husband.

For Leon Seemann, Bobbitt’s confidante and executive director at Adventure Theatre MTC, the transformation was astonishing.

“He went away for a couple months and then comes back and he’s, like, a completely different guy,” said Seemann. “He was kind of purging things both mentally and physically.”

And while recruiters had previously sought Bobbitt out, he was ready when New Rep came calling.

“He brought what the board wanted — somebody to reinvigorate the company,” said New Rep board chair Chris Jones. “He was really moving the company in the direction that the company was looking for him to move it.”

Today, Bobbitt has big questions about business-as-usual in the arts: Should nonprofits really be run by volunteer non-expert boards? Why don’t more smaller organizations pool their resources? And don’t get him started on things like subscription models, annual budgeting, and renewals.

“He had this unique perspective of what it means to be a working artist,” MCC council chair Nina Fialkow said, adding the council had been looking for a “visionary” leader who could grasp what the pandemic-altered landscape meant for cultural organizations.

Mainly, though Bobbitt is determined to help the sector recover, while also seeking to expand the reach and resources of the agency, which he says supports only a fraction of the state’s cultural nonprofits.

A big part of that effort will be realizing the MCC’s new racial equity plan, which seeks to increase support for under-resourced organizations while also overhauling the agency’s grant-making policies.

Next month, agency staff will begin auditing the MCC’s grant-making policies with an eye toward identifying possible barriers to applicants: Does requiring audited financials, a lengthy and expensive process, act as an obstacle? Could the MCC accept audio or video submissions to help level the playing field for non-native English speakers? And what about matching funds and reimbursement grants — do they lock out organizations that don’t meet certain fund-raising thresholds?

“There’s just dozens and dozens of little tiny things,” said Bobbitt. “The application is the tool for the customer to get the product, so it should be as easy as pie.”

It’s work that’s close to his heart.

“I’m here because someone made an equitable grant decision for D.C. public schools,” said Bobbitt, who acted and played trumpet in elementary school. “Most of my training as an artist was paid for by someone else.”

He was quick to add that some new policies will take time to implement, “because we don’t want to destabilize any organization.”

“I’m not trying to take money from anyone,” he said. “I’m trying to add more money to the pot.”

And that’s the harder sell. For years, arts advocates have trotted out financial statistics to convince politicians that arts investment makes for sound fiscal policy. The figures are impressive — the MCC estimates that, pre-COVID, culture’s annual economic impact in the state was $2.3 billion — but the strategy hasn’t really moved the needle recently when it comes to increased funding.

“I just wonder if that message is not going as deep as we need it to go,” said Bobbitt, who said he’s been surprised at how many of the state’s cultural facilities are in dire need of repair. “I would say about 95 percent of them have critical capital facilities needs.”

He added that although we’re living in a “creative age,” where investment in the arts keeps a region competitive and vibrant, arts leaders often spend long hours just keeping their buildings operational.

“So what happens if we invest more into capital infrastructure,” he said. “Would it free up that time for 10-15 years, so that leaders can focus on the kinds of things we really want our organizations to do? That’s the kind of thing I’m thinking about in terms of long-term messaging.”

In the meantime, Bobbitt must figure out how to administer the agency’s $60 million in relief funding , while also advocating for more pandemic relief.

“I’m always going to ask for more,” he said. But “it’s a lot of money to move.”

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