Boston’s ‘Joy Agenda’ plan seeks to heal the city through art

Graffiti on a bridge in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. Photo by Peter Gordon
Graffiti on a bridge in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. Photo by Peter Gordon

By Peter Gordon

Acting Mayor of Boston Kim Janey announced the city’s new “Joy Agenda” plan in May, an initiative that includes public art to heal the city after its tumultuous experience dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the unrest resulting from the murder of George Floyd.

“After over a year of incredible hardships caused by COVID-19 and acts of violence against communities of color across the country, we’re looking at ways we can foster an equitable recovery that allows all residents of Boston to thrive,” said Janey. “We believe that by emphasizing the power of joy in healing and growth, we’ll be able to come back together as a stronger, more welcoming city.”

Data Source: CDC National Center for Health Statistics Anxiety and Depression, Household Pulse Survey Infographic by Peter Gordon

According to the mayor’s office, the agenda will focus on three strategies:

  • Creating spaces to reflect on and share what joy means to Boston and re-imagine more equitable policies and practices that promote joyful access to public space and other services.
  • Providing a range of ways for residents to safely reconnect with family, friends, and neighbors through engaging both virtually and in vibrant public spaces.
  • Investing in recovery and renewal through supporting the power and delight that arts and culture workers, local small businesses and youth bring to the City of Boston.

One tool the city plans to use to achieve its goals is to employ artists through its transformative art program. Now in its third year, the program commissions murals and temporary projects throughout the city.

As of June 30, the application process for the city’s transformation art program is closed. The artists that will be spearheading the public art joy agenda are as of now unknown.

Some of the mural projects they will be working on include: a mural for Boston’s Latin Quarter in Mozart Park in Jamaica Plain, a mural honoring the legacy of Malcolm X in Malcolm X Park in Roxbury, a mural commemorating the legacy of Rita Hester and Transgender Day of Remembrance in Allston, and a mural at the East Boston Senior Center.

Art currently decorating a wall in Mozart Park, Jamaica Plain. Photo by Peter Gordon

Additionally, the plan calls for short-term site-specific projects of new or traditional media, that can be an installation or a performance.

“This past year, we saw so many artists bring together communities amid social isolation and provide collective opportunities for processing grief, healing, and joy,” said Kara Elliott-Ortega, chief of arts and culture for Boston. “This program will bring more arts opportunities to Boston, while also investing in artists and creative workers who need our support now more than ever.”

Some, like local artist Mitch Ryerson, say they think this is a step in the right direction.

“And I think that doesn’t necessarily mean brushing it under the rug with just some feel good stuff,” he said. “But I think it’s good to be positive and to give people hope. So yeah, I think that’s a great idea.”

Ryerson’s work has him interacting with the community quite a bit as he works with architects, city planners, contractors and community members to design playgrounds for children throughout the city among other artistic endeavors.

Despite his history working with the city, Ryerson said that Boston, although getting better, has not always been a great city for public art.

“It wasn’t always so great. And it was also very culturally, kind of myopic,” he said. “It was a very old-world kind of perspective, or Boston Brahmin kind of perspective on public art. And I think that they’re definitely doing a better job.”

Ryerson credits the city with transitioning away from just statues of famous people but emphasizing community engagement and multicultural representations in art as well as promoting multicultural artists. He thinks that this approach, like the one championed by the joy agenda, is ultimately good for the city.

“Not only is it good for the psyche of the community, but it’s also economically helpful to create those spaces where people feel comfortable to gather,” he said. “It supports a variety of businesses around it, not to mention the fabrication of the pieces and the artists themselves. So, it has a really important ripple effect and helps create community.”

Patrick Healy, an artist based in Portsmouth New Hampshire, said he view’s Boston’s public art initiative as a positive thing but not a cure-all.

“It’s going to help the people who are open to that kind of healing. But for the people who aren’t, it’s not going to do anything,” he said. “Because they’re not able to experience it because of the way they go through the universe. So, yeah, it’s a good thing. But I don’t think it should be a blanket ‘all public art should be this’ kind of thing.”

Healy emphasized that certain types of art are going to appeal to certain types of people.

“I mean if you need a statue of Bobby Orr, like ‘I want to see him like hitting that puck.’ That’s a certain genre,” he said. But that genre of public art is only going to be healing to Bruin’s fans.

According to Healy although public art isn’t necessarily for everyone, that doesn’t make it unnecessary.

“Everyone experiences art in different way. So not everyone who sees art has an eye for it. Like I don’t really have an ear for opera because I don’t really listen to it, but that doesn’t mean opera isn’t necessary,” he said

Healy sees public art as overall beneficial to his city of Portsmouth and to Boston as well.

“So, I think it for me, because I do pay attention to a lot of art, it enhances the beauty of our city,” he said. “Even if you don’t understand some of the objects, they may stretch your imagination or challenge you to think a little bit. Or even, you know, maybe they just stir you up.”

Janey is not the only candidate in Boston’s mayoral race who has a plan like this. City Councilor Michelle Wu is calling for an initiative which her campaign calls a “Summer of Play,” and describes as an “arts and culture focus with open play streets, block parties and investment in placemaking for a joyful, healing summer.”

According to Wu, her proposal would reimagine Boston’s relationship with public space and would emulate Philadelphia’s Playstreets program. Boston’s Playstreets would close hundreds of streets for activities that would include food, art and activities for kids, hiring DJs and artists, and inviting professional sports teams and private companies to participate.

She also called for the city to create space in every community to hold block parties by simplifying public event permits, directing public streets and parks to be venues for arts and culture programming, and creating direct city assistance for communities to set up block parties, with microgrants to remove financial barriers for every neighborhood.

“Imagine music and community events in every park, block parties in every neighborhood, and every bit of Boston’s diversity reflected in the vibrancy on our open streets,” Wu said. “Let’s supercharge our recovery, support local artists and small businesses, and help communities heal through an intensive focus on infusing arts and play throughout our neighborhoods.”

About Peter Gordon 4 Articles
Peter Gordon is a recent graduate of Emerson College's masters program in journalism and a long-time resident of Boston. He is interested in stories about arts and culture, sports, and how policy surrounding housing, transportation, and use of urban space effects less privileged and underserved communities.