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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

UMass Boston 50 at 50: Where Politics and Art Collide

In honor of the University’s 50th anniversary The Mass Media is contacting 50 former student leaders and profiling them throughout the year. This is the first in a series.
Self-described policy nerd Kathleen Bitetti makes art and practices law from a compact office near Harvard Square. As a student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, she ran the Harbor Art Gallery in the early 1990s and curated innovative art exhibits that brought attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis during its peak. To Bitetti, art is all about policy.
After graduating from UMass Boston, she created and curated exhibits all over Boston and made a name for herself in the Massachusetts art scene. Most recently, in the spring of 2014 her study for a new installation appeared at the Distillery Gallery in Boston. In addition to her work as an artist, she shapes legislation.
“Most artists don’t get paid for their work, no matter what line they’re in,” Bitetti said. “It’s what you would call in economics a dual labor market structure.”
Museums, theaters, and – increasingly – companies like Google, lobby with legislators on topics surrounding the arts, both for funding and copyright issues. Often the interests of artists, acting as independent contractors, get overlooked.
“I work with people that make things from nothing,” Bitetti said. “It’s beyond arts funding for us.”
Bitetti co-founded the Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition (MALC), with a mission “to ensure that artists are at the policy making table.” She also founded Artists Under the Dome (artistsunderthedome.org), a website that tracks legislation that affects artists in Massachusetts. Her work has influenced how the Affordable Care Act treats artists.
“A lot of it has to do with unintended consequences because people don’t understand stuff,” Bitetti said. “For the healthcare law, it’s hard for us to figure out our income.”
Outside of her office on a large brick terrace surrounded by young trees, their green crowns turning gold, Bitetti beamed as she talked about UMass Boston. She’s a big fan of Chancellor Motley.
“He’s someone who really likes students,” she said. “It’s not a career step for him. He really cares about what’s there . . . He’s making UMass be more and more a part of the dialogue in Boston, particularly with the new mayor.”
On the last day of summer, Bitetti sat at an umbrellaed table reminiscing about her time at UMass Boston.
Q: Why did you decide to go to UMB?
A: It wasn’t on my choices, but I went there as a transfer temporarily before I was going to go, and I just wound up staying and I really liked it.
Q: What did you like about it? How did that end up happening?
A: I liked how diverse it was, and it’s probably even more diverse now, people weren’t all between 18 and 22. You learn just as much from the folks in your class as you do the professors.
Q: Were you older when you were going there?
A: Nope. I was 18. I transferred out of Brandies because it wasn’t a good match. I don’t think any school where everyone was the same age would have worked for me. This was a place where no one asked if your friends were teen mothers, why you were dressed the way you were. To me the other schools were high school all over again, and I didn’t like high school really. I didn’t want to pay to go to high school again. This was a school that really about learning. I transferred into the art department, was goanna do art history, and I did—double major was Economics and Art, and I ran the gallery for a long time too, the Harbor Gallery.
Q: Are there any specific memories from the time when you were a student?
A: A lot of memories. I mean, running the gallery. I was there during the time of the HIV/AIDS crisis and the culture wars, so it was a really intense time in our country in general. So that was kind of the backdrop. Most of the professors, at least when I went there, were also social justice people. That was kind of a nice mix there.
Q: What kind of gallery shows did you do as a student?
A: Gosh. I ran it for about four or five years, so there are a lot of shows. We did some solo shows of important artists like Allan Rohan Crite, the late Allan Rohan Crite, who was an incredible African-American artist, one of the most important that ever lived. We showed a lot of installation work. We did a whole show around censorship, a couple shows around censorship cause that was what was going on at that time with Jesse Helms, and so it was a really intense time period. A lot of colleges were under siege. Funding for the arts and humanities was being cut back, and that was when we lost the fellowships for artists, Karen Finley, the NEA Four. It was a very intense time. That’s the backdrop I remember.
At UMass, when they did policy it wasn’t abstract, the professors were actually implementing the policy and working with the populations they were doing it for, where other places could be more abstract and not really actually talking to people they were doing policy for, which is why there is a lot of problems with policy because policy makers have no clue on who they’re making policy for or interacting with those populations. UMass McCormack school, and the Economics department particularly, those folks were very involved. That kind of training was really important. Same with the artists, I studied with the late Jerry Berndt, an AP, Magnum and UPI photographer who did a lot of incredible work. His photo work changed how homelessness was dealt with in Boston. The Art department and the Economics department were very much in the world and being part of those discussions to make it better.
Q: What was your favorite class?
A: I couldn’t say there’s one favorite class.
Q: Does any one stick out to you at all?
A: There’s a lot that do. I remember professors more than classes, so I can name a ton of professors that I studied with. I had fabulous professors.
Q: Is there one stick-out one?
A: There’s a lot. I would rather not name one, because that would not be fair to all the people who were so supportive of me when I was there. I still have a lot of connections with the faculty. There’s folks there that you make life long connections with because they didn’t treat you like a student or a high school kid. You were considered an equal. The way they invest in you as a human being is just different than other places.
Q: Do you have a favorite activity that you were doing?
A: I ran the art gallery, so that was a hell of a lot of fun.
Q: Do you have any stories from that?
A: Oh, there’s lots of stories from that. We did the first show ever of people living with HIV/AIDS in Massachusetts.
Q: What was that like?
A: It was intense because people couldn’t put their name on it, because there’s nothing protecting folks from losing their housing, so it was a very intense show. They used to do shows after people died, so that was a really important show we did.
Q: How did you come up with the idea?
A: I was in ACT UP, so working with folks at AIDS Action Committee we realized there was this huge gap and we needed to really honor people who were still alive, if they wanted to be.
Q: It was a really important time for that.
A: Well, people were dying. It was the plague. It was really scary times. There were no protections. If somebody thought that you were HIV positive you could lose you job and your housing. There was nothing to protect folks.
Q: What are some important things you learned as a student?
A: Nothing is impossible, and how to build long-term connections and relationships in a sincere way, and that social justice issues are the most important thing you could ever work on and they should guide everything that you do.
Q: How has it developed, and what do you think about the developments that you’ve noticed?
A: They’ve really upgraded, which is great. Everything was falling apart. Chancellor Motley has done a wonderful job with building it out to be a first class university: to be on par with the folks who actually have more money, the Harvards and MITs, to physically have it be like that.
Q: Where did you spend most of your time on campus as a student?
A: The gallery. It was really kind of like a place where everybody hung out.
Q: Do you have any wishes for UMass Boston’s 50th birthday?
A: I guess I wish that there would be more resources going to it. Traditionally the alumni, folks that go to UMass, aren’t folks that have a lot of money. That’s what’s really important about the school. It’s first time folks going to college; people with limited means. It’s the only university in Massachusetts that reflects who lives here in a real way. You can hear every language being spoken there. Most colleges are dominated by white people with means. So I wish it would get its due for all its done and it continues to do.