Like many of America’s cities, Boston is in the midst of reinventing itself. The downtown areas, long centered around the needs and schedule of the office workers, required a new approach in the age of remote/hybrid work.
For years, I knew downtown Boston as an area that largely shut down in the evenings and during the weekends. If you did not work in the area, you may not have felt compelled to ever go there.
Since 2020, the perception of downtown has turned to something more barren due to the steady stream of stories focused on office vacancies and various incidents. Suffice it to say, the image overhaul was paramount for the future of downtown.
In lieu of the 9-5 crowd, downtown Boston is seeking to emulate the success of the city’s thriving neighborhoods by taking on “destination” characteristics; emphasizing retail and “experiences” that will draw in new audiences. Spearheading that effort is the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District (BID) with their $2 million Level Up Downtown initiative.
One component of this strategy is the investment and installation of public art. Recently several art pieces have popped up around IMG’s Boston office as part of the Downtown Boston BID’s WINTERACTIVE exhibits. Aptly drawing from the festivals of Quebec, the art is intended to spruce up the area during the dark, cold months of winter.
If the broader effort is intended to deliver the message that there’s something new and exciting happening downtown, this art is the most visible component.
Like any public art, it’s not without its share of critics. Some of the pieces are quite provocative and avant-garde. When I first came across “The Swing” (a life-size and life-like sculpture of a child swinging from a telephone wire) one evening, I was initially concerned that it was a real person.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can recognize that the artwork offered a reprieve, albeit a small one, from the monotony of my routine. It made me stop. It made me think. Just as public art is intended to do.
It’s worth commending the initiative as a placemaking effort. If the historic perception of downtown Boston was sleepy and drab, WINTERACTIVE is anything but. I’m not sure that it will drive people to visit downtown, but this art is driving conversation – with a positive slant. People are talking about the neighborhood, but importantly, they are discussing what’s new here instead of what’s been lost. They are taking pictures to share with friends and family. They are interacting with these installations.
Even those who may not be fans of WINTERACTIVE are discussing what they would like to see from a public art program. If that is the sort of criticism this effort is generating, I’d consider it a success. And it’s worth reinforcing that the exhibits are temporary. The feedback on WINTERACTIVE will no doubt serve to improve the program’s future offerings.
It should not go unmentioned that visiting these installations is completely free at a time when costs are seemingly up across the board. Planning an activity without worrying about budgeting is somewhat rare in this day and age.
The revitalization of downtown Boston is very much a work in progress, but the early signs point to making the area more friendly and welcoming, aesthetically, at least. Downtown Boston is attempting a comeback and, quantitatively, there is a good story to tell (retail vacancies are down, restaurant options are up). Visible, colorful displays like WINTERACTIVE offer a fantastic vehicle to draw attention to the neighborhood and what’s happening in downtown Boston.