Arts Commentary: The Virtual Arts Center

By Bill Marx

On June 21, the Boston Foundation announced that the Citi Performing Arts Center (CPAC, formerly the Wang Center for the Performing Arts) would be receiving $225,000. This is not only the largest single grant given to any institution for the quarter; it is the most money (by a long shot) the Wang/CPAC has received at one time from the Boston Foundation since 1993. Why should the city’s major nonprofit arts center receive so much local moolah after partnering with the mega-bank Citigroup? To help turn the floundering CPAC into a streamlined corporate money-making machine, of course.

Mirror up to Nature has a fine analysis of today’s Boston Globe story, especially the role the Boston Foundation is playing in the pie-in-the-sky reinvention of CPAC as a “virtual performing arts center.” Make no mistake about it, the collaborations with First Night and other local arts and culture groups (none of whom are heavy hitters) are only distractions from the real deal. CPAC is transitioning into major sales mode, intent on selling its dubious expertise — given its track record — as an “e-based” marketer and “professional theater management” company.

The Boston Foundation’s press release announced where this quarter’s grants are going, though what the CPAC is doing with the money is kept vague:

The largest single grant, for $225,000, was awarded to the Citi Performing Arts Center—formerly known as the Wang Center for the Performing Arts. This follows the announcement in late 2006 of a 15-year partnership between the high-profile Boston arts center which serves one million-plus people annually and the world’s second largest bank. The Boston Foundation grant will be used to pursue and implement strategic alliances locally with smaller organizations. The goal is to create organizational efficiencies, build audiences, and introduce a more strategic approach to aligning the performing arts and current and potential audiences in Greater Boston.


Arsenal Center for the Arts – $50,000
Boston Center for the Arts, Inc. – $75,000
Citi Performing Arts Center – $225,000
First Night, Inc. – $100,000
Freedom Trail Foundation, Inc. – $35,000
Huntington Theatre Company, Inc. – $100,000
Jose Mateo’s Ballet Theatre of Boston – $40,000
Museum of African American History – $50,000
Opera Boston – $40,000

When I asked why an arts organization supported by the “world’s second largest bank” should get so much cash, Boston Foundation spokesman David Trueblood answered that “success breeds success.” Citigroup provides the CPAC with solid institutional support, while the Boston Foundation is “on the ground,” helping with CPAC’s pragmatic needs.

This sounds like the rich-get-richer reasoning to me: the Boston Foundation is doing its bit to keep Citigroup happy by helping its investment out of economic trouble. Approximately $140,000 of the grant is contingent on the CPAC partnering with performing arts companies. The funds cover the cost of bringing the organizations together. Why not just give the money to the groups and cut out CPAC, the middle man?

Wang/CPAC has not asked for support from the Boston Foundation for Shakespeare on the Common since the latter was set up in 2003. That program, drastically cut back this summer, is most likely going to be replaced — probably by a touring production from Shakespeare and Company, one of the groups CPAC is considering collaborating or merging with.

Given the bad PR, CPAC will want to quell grumbling that the Bard has fled the city. The organization will have a harder time explaining away criticism that Boston’s largest arts center is less interested in fostering creativity than hawking its marketing techniques.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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