Located just across the Charles River from Boston is a cluster of unique communities united in their commitment to investing in arts and culture. According to the 2022 Arts Vibrancy Index, the Cambridge-Newton-Framingham metro division scores in the top two percent of communities nationwide in overall Arts Dollars, with particular strength in compensation paid to arts and cultural employees.
While all three municipalities make significant direct investments in arts and culture they also benefit from the state’s Local Cultural Council program, which is the largest grassroots cultural funding network in the nation, awarding more than $7 million to 7,500 cultural programs each year.
Often considered part of Boston, the city of Cambridge is known as an academic powerhouse. It's home to two of the world's most renowned universities, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These institutions not only contribute to the city's intellectual reputation but also influence its culture, research initiatives, and economic growth. All within the span of just a few miles are seven university-based art organizations: American Repertory Theatre, the Harvard Art Museums, Harvard Museum of Natural History, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Semitic Museum, List Visual Arts Center, and MIT Museum – several of which are well known for innovative and boundary-pushing performances.
Sandwiched between the two campuses is the state-designated Central Square Cultural District, a lively neighborhood that blends contemporary aspects of city life with historical charm and human-centered spaces. Here, you’ll find street art and murals, art walks, cafes, live music, and festivals that reflect the vibrant, diverse, and progressive minds of its residents.
In 2022-23, the city funded a whopping 35 local arts projects through the Cambridge Arts Grant Program, including a vocal concert about historical women in Bengal, a puppet opera about weather, a traditional Japanese paper theater show about butterfly migration, and a directory of monuments and memorials in Cambridge. The city also has a Percent-for-Art program that ensures one percent of construction costs on municipal capital investment are designated for use in developing site-responsive public artwork. So far, this has resulted in the creation of more than 200 pieces of artwork in locations across the city from youth and senior centers, schools, and libraries, to public parks, plazas and sidewalks.
About seven miles west of Cambridge is the city of Newton. Home to an abundance of top tier arts and cultural organizations, Newton boasts one of the largest and longest running Open Studios in the greater New England area, hosting events for local artists to introduce their work to the broader community and build a network of supportive arts patrons and advocates.
At the foundation of this network is the multitude of funders providing valuable opportunities for individual artists and organizations to carry out their work. Newton municipality has a department devoted solely to supporting arts and culture through programs that advance equal access to the arts. Notably, Newton Cultural Council, Newton Cultural Alliance, and Newton Community Pride are three key groups that advocate for and help sustain the arts through programming and grant opportunities.
Continuing westward, Framingham is a city known for its cultural diversity which is proudly reflected in the local arts scene. Unveiled in 2022, Many Cultures, One Heart public art project is a series of heart sculptures placed throughout Framingham’s Centre Common Cultural District that have been painted by local artists with imagery that represents the many communities that call Framingham home.
With the hopes of providing a larger stage for underrepresented artists, this project is also a way to unite the community of Framingham and beyond as tourists snap photos and post about the pieces they find during their stay. Over the last three and half years, this drive to connect with one another has become even more essential to the well-being of the community.
Amid the COVID-19 shutdowns, multiple outdoor visual arts initiatives across the region began on a mission to boost morale for residents. From July to September 2021, The Artful Piano Project placed 9 colorfully painted pianos in public centers across the town for free play. Other initiatives like Newton Out Doors, and Flutter also made use of public areas as exhibition space and connect residents during difficult times. Post-pandemic and socially distancing orders, the "Revitalize Creative Newton" program assisted 11 nonprofit organizations with much needed recovery funds to help with general operating costs, technical or consultant needs, and equity assessments and planning.
While distinct in their own right, these three communities collectively contribute to the thriving arts landscape of the central-eastern Massachusetts region, offering a diverse range of artistic and cultural experiences, education, and connection that enrich the lives of visitors and residents alike.
Thank you to Paula Gannon of City of Newton for their thoughtful contributions to the making of this article.
ABOUT THE ARTS VIBRANCY INDEX
The Arts Vibrancy Index examines the level of supply, demand, and government support of the arts in more than 900 communities across the country. Accompanied by an interactive Arts Vibrancy Map that reveals the arts-vibrancy score of every county in the U.S., the Index lists, in alphabetical order, the 20 most arts-vibrant large cities, the 10 most arts-vibrant medium cities, and the 10 most arts-vibrant small cities. In this year’s Index, the first since 2020, four communities debut on the lists, and an additional five return after an absence of at least three years.