Let's elect arts champions in Holyoke and Springfield

Local elected leaders recognize how important opportunities for creative expression are for building strong communities. The National League of Cities, which provides resources, training, and support for municipalities, recently released a report showing that mayors across the country view arts and culture as important as employment opportunities and economic investment to a city or town's health.

That's obvious to anyone who has attended a concert or comedy show at the MassMutual Center, visited the new Dr. Seuss Museum, saw their child's artwork displayed in the lobby of their school, or sipped brews at White Lion Wednesdays this past summer. It's also obvious to the folks that have taken a tango class at Gateway City Arts or enjoyed a MIFA theatrical production.

With Holyoke's city council and mayoral campaigns underway, along with Springfield's city council races, it's important that we hear from the candidates on arts and cultural issues. Do candidates have a cultural policy plan? Can they articulate their belief about the role that municipal leaders can play in supporting arts and cultural activities? Do they have strategies for increasing local investment in the creative community? Can they explain how they intend to integrate arts policies into city government initiatives impacting education, public health and safety, and economic development? Elections are when we hear candidates' best ideas for meeting the challenges our city faces. Given how important arts and culture is to the economic health of both cities and the livability of our neighborhoods, we want to hear from candidates on these issues!

That was evident in a preliminary mayoral election debate in Holyoke last month, where candidates were asked directly about their positions on arts and culture. Their answers illuminated clear differences among the candidates – including between the two mayoral candidates, Mayor Alex Morse and Jason Ferreira – about the importance of arts and culture in creating safe, healthy, and economically strong communities.

Springfield voters can learn about city council candidates' views on the role of arts and culture in our communities, thanks to Create the Vote Springfield, an effort by local arts and cultural organizations, artists and arts leaders aimed at creating dialogue about how political leaders will harness the power of the arts to make change. The coalition, led by the Springfield Central Cultural District distributed questionnaires to all city council candidates. They are also engaging the candidates about arts and the creative economy as part of Focus Springfield Community Television's debates. The Oct. 9 debate can be seen on YouTube. The next debate takes place Oct. 18, and will be available for viewing online in the days following.

Here in Massachusetts, arts and cultural businesses and organizations support more than 128,000 jobs, which is more than those generated by transportation and utilities combined. You might be surprised to learn there's a similar impact here in Holyoke and Springfield. Springfield, for example, boasts more than 300 creative enterprises that support 1,800 full time jobs and make a $50 million impact locally.

Just as important (perhaps more important) are the ways that creative expression builds connection among families and friends, and the broader community. Gatherings like the Afterthoughts Book Discussion Group at the Forest Park library, Nuestras Raices' annual Harvest Festival, and other community cultural events that encourage residents and visitors alike to patronize local businesses, are among the most powerful examples. This is the stuff that makes Holyoke and Springfield places where people want to live, work, and play – and none of it happens by accident.

Arts and cultural programs thrive, and their impact scales dramatically, when they enjoy the support of our local leaders. That's why it's so important to talk about these issues with candidates. Going forward, we should maximize our investment in creative endeavors in order to get the most from them. To do this, we need public engagement and deliberate planning, as well as leadership from our cities' mayors and city councilors.

Morgan Drewniany is the executive director of the Springfield Central Cultural District. Matt Wilson is the executive director of the statewide arts advocacy group MASSCreative.