by Debra Cash
Last May, New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) held a special celebration marking the retirement of Rebecca Blunk as its Executive Director. She had come to Boston in 1985 from the Nebraska Arts Council. At NEFA, her first job was as director of performing arts, but she was ultimately promoted to deputy director and took on the responsibilities of leading the organization in 2004.
Under the raised glasses and yummy appetizers, the warmth, humor, and reminiscence of the party was a thrum of sadness: most of her friends and colleagues had heard that as she stepped down for “health and personal reasons” Rebecca Blunk was fighting for her life. Her spouse, novelist and teacher Marcie Hershman, quietly told me that it hadn’t been clear that she would be well enough to make the party, but she rallied, abashed at being the center of attention but soaking in the affection and appreciation. I’m so very glad we were able to tell her.
Rebecca Blunk died at the outrageously premature age of 60 on June 22.
Rebecca was a prudent administrator, but she was also someone who preferred to say yes to great ideas and hash out the details as a project unfolded. Her working method involved deep listening to artists, administrators and audiences: she kept her eye open for gaps and worked with her team and alongside funders and other nonprofits to fill them.
Rebecca’s official accomplishments include leading the National Dance Project, a regranting program that supports production residencies, international exchange, regional development of dance artists, and the work of contemporary art centers. She and her staff piloted and then joined in a consortium to formalize a support system for Native American artists from basket weavers to musicians. The National Theater Project sought to bring artist-led projects to broader audiences; Center Stage, a NEFA administered project of the U.S. State Department and private foundations brought 61 performing artists from Haiti, Indonesia, and Pakistan for month- long U.S. tours. And this is not to ignore her diligence in supporting and expanding NEFA’s ongoing projects in public art, arts advocacy and network building across the state, the region, the nation and the world. She was, as her official obituary read, “a passionate and inspired advocate for the creative economy.”
I worked with Rebecca as a journalist, as a NEFA contractor contributing writing and program evaluation research to a number of different programs, and as an active member of her community of cultural sector colleagues. Lately, I’ve been wearing a button from Mass Creative designed to hold the candidates for elective office accountable to our important, $1 billion sector. It reads “Arts Matter.” They always mattered to Rebecca and by her unwavering commitments she made sure they would matter to everyone she came into contact with.
Cancer is a bitter and assiduous enemy. I like the locution I read somewhere that “her spirit succumbed to her body.” Our body is mortal, but the spirit moves into the realm of shared experience. Rebecca’s spirit will persist in every artist who remembers how much she believed in them, every organization that she urged to greater risk-taking and optimism for the future, and every friend brought together by the sorrow of her passing.
Contributions in her memory can be made to The Rebecca Blunk Fund, NEFA, 145 Tremont St, 7th Fl, Boston MA 02111.
c 2014 Debra Cash