Pilot arts-aid project aims to remake Boston into a gleaming cultural capital

Can a gracious old dowager of the arts, such as Boston, remake itself into a gleaming cultural capital? The Ford, Carnegie, and Mellon Foundations are willing to invest $3 million in just such a proposition.

Boston has enjoyed a construction and business renaissance in recent years; but the cultural infrastructure, which once gave it preeminence among second-tier American cities, has eroded badly.

All of this may be changing in the near future. And the way it changes has widespread significance for American arts institutions.

This city has been chosen as the pilot project in the joint Ford-Carnegie-Mellon Foundations' National Arts Stabilization Fund, a multimillion-dollar program to provide long-term financial assistance and fiscal planning to important arts organizations. The NASF has earmarked $3 million in matching funds to the city, and Boston has established a Greater Boston Arts Fund, which has raised all but $500,000 of the required local ante.

''This is not a bailout program, and it is not a start-up program,'' says Edward E. Phillips, chairman and chief executive of New England Mutual Life. Mr. Phillips has been chosen to spearhead the fund; but more critical is the fact that he has the city's economic muscle behind him.

The luncheon at which the fund was launched is a case in point. A convivial gathering of the pols and pros that make this city tick, it saw the legislative leaders, governor, and outgoing mayor joining with corporate leaders.

What finally pulled these forces together, after two decades of scattered and uncoordinated responses to the city's struggling arts community? The bottom line. This program is designed to make arts organizations answerable to bottom-line thinking.

''At least this way you don't feel your money will be going down a rat-hole, '' observed one company president who has not been an arts contributor, but feels encouraged to become one now.

There are unanswered questions about the program's stringent fiscal parameters. Does it make sense to engineer handouts for those organizations which, after all, are already getting the lion's share of public giving? Is it possible to enforce strong management thinking on institutions used to management by crisis and inspiration? Will this force arts institutions to subordinate artistic adventure to the bottom line?

But there is no question about how welcome such a program is in Boston.

To those observers weary of watching the city's cultural fortunes decline, it seems as though a fountain of youth had sprung full-flowing in a dying forest.

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