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Leveraging Crisis: Michael J. Bobbitt on Art, Leadership, and Imagination in the Age of Covid-19

Michael J. Bobbitt is the new executive director of the Mass Cultural Council.
Michael J. Bobbitt is the new executive director of the Mass Cultural Council. By Courtesy of Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
By Isabella B. Cho, Crimson Staff Writer

Every day, Michael J. Bobbitt wakes up at 6:30 a.m. to a quiet house (his husband sleeps in), thumbs through trade papers, maybe listens to the news. Four days a week, he trains with a friend who runs a Black-owned gym in Dorchester. “He kicks my butt for an hour,” Bobbitt said with an easy laugh. Amid the chaos of the world, he maintains a regimented schedule, assiduously protecting his health and his work. During a year marked by what he terms the “dual pandemics” of Covid-19 and systemic racism, these rituals give Bobbitt a sense of normalcy, allowing him to lean into the crisis and lead with compassion.

The director, choreographer, and playwright departed his post as artistic director at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown to join the Mass Cultural Council as its new executive director on Feb. 1. Despite entering his role at a time fraught with economic downturns and frenzied transitions to digital work, Bobbitt defended his audacity to dream big. “I’ve always thought of crises as opportunities,” he said. “I’ve thought of them as opportunities to make something better. So I always lean into them, and come out healthier, happier, stronger. I’m hoping that the arts and cultural world will do that — lean into what we’re in right now.”

Beyond his passion for supporting artists, the newly inducted director is a versatile artist himself. He trained as a European classical trumpeter in college, later transitioning to dance and theater. Adopting his now 19-year-old son compelled Bobbitt to reconsider his artistic trajectory — balancing “all the gigs” as a freelance artist made it too challenging to “be a dad,” he said. In the last ten years, Bobbit has come to realize his true passion lies in equipping artists with the resources to actualize their creative potential. “I just wanted to give work to artists, and give them everything they needed to do great work,” he said. “And then I would go out and make sure I found support for the work that they were doing.”

Rather than imposing his own vision, Bobbitt prefers to center the needs of artists themselves. In his first days helming the Council, Bobbitt said he remained deeply committed to — and exhilarated by — opportunities for collaborative dialogue. “I don’t aspire to make unilateral or arbitrary decisions,” he said. “I really love hearing from the various constituencies that we’re working with — which includes our council, our staff, our artists, our grantees, our local cultural councils, our partners, our legislators — to find out where we need and want to go.”

Though successful careers and sustainable lifestyles seem mutually exclusive, Bobbitt manages, somehow, to balance both. To decompress after work hours, Bobbitt indulges in TV — an all-time favorite is “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which makes Friday a reason to celebrate — and scrolls through a seemingly endless bevy of Instagram reels. Beyond entertainment, he tries to squeeze in at least two or three calls with his son each week. Every night, Bobbitt uses a beaded bracelet as a tool to cultivate a mindset of gratitude. “I will touch each bead and name something I’m grateful for, which is kind of cool because I go through 30 or 40 things to remind myself that being grateful for what you have is pretty great,” he said.

Intentional living, however, is not merely a way for Bobbitt to maintain his physical health: It is a grounding ritual during a period of sociopolitical unrest. “Self-care is really important to me, especially during a stressful time of onboarding for a new job and, as a Black man, dealing with the racial reckoning that’s happening in the world, and also just dealing with the challenges of Covid,” he said. “Being healthy helps me navigate all of that well.”

In a time marked by national conversations regarding race and belonging, Bobbitt remains deeply committed to equity, both within the Council and across the industry. When assessing antiracism in arts and culture, Bobbitt acknowledges the need for structural, policy-driven reform while recognizing that, without cultural shifts, shifts in policy will be an incomplete solution. “The 1964 Civil Rights Act didn’t turn bigots into not being bigots,” he said. “It just made it illegal to discriminate against Black people. So policy can do a lot — it’s not going to fix the culture. It’s not going to change people’s hearts and minds.”

How can we — after the devastation wrought by both Covid-19 and sociopolitical developments — effectively move forward? How, in other words, can we heal? According to Bobbitt, the arts have been crucial for keeping people “healthy and vibrant” during these tumultuous times. This conviction aligns with the initiatives of the Council he now helms.

For instance, its CultureRx Initiative, launched in 2019, facilitates partnerships between healthcare providers and arts organizations. The program aims to provide discounts to cultural events for populations including low-income adults and children, veterans, and the eldery to build a “public infrastructure” that utilizes arts and culture as a “protective factor” in the health of state residents, according to the Council’s official website. Healthcare providers can prescribe going to an arts and culture event as “part of the healing” through the program, Bobbitt added. Through initiatives such as CultureRx, Bobbitt — as well as the Council at large — strives to leverage art as a redemptive force during a time of national restlessness.

Now more than ever, Bobbitt believes, the key to tackling the world’s most trying crises lies in the synergy between the arts and scientific innovation. He cites the creativity and radical empathy intrinsic to the artistic process as essential for national recovery. “Imagination is seeing the world differently,” Bobbitt said. “So there’s no one more qualified to imagine the world differently than artists. And I really believe that if we think about all the different things we’re struggling with in society — if we include artists in those conversations, who are expert imaginators, we can help solve so many things.”

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at isabella.cho@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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