Catherine Morris, Founder and Executive Director of BAMS Fest

Catherine T. Morris is the Founder and Executive Director of Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Fest and the Director of Public Programs for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a Fenway Alliance Member Institution.  As the Founder and Executive Director of Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Fest, Catherine has created an organization that strives to breakdown racial and social barriers to arts, music and culture for marginalized communities and artists of color across Greater Boston. As a result, BAMS Fest has presented over 400 local and independent musicians and artists, curated in 20 public spaces and has attracted over 10,000 attendees. Catherine has been a presenter, panelist, and moderator with SPARK Boston, Podcast Garage, Berklee College of Music, Emerson College, Northeastern University, Simmons University, MIT, and Fenway High School. She is a 2018 National Art Strategies Creative Community Fellow (The Barr Foundation), and has served on grant review panels for the Cambridge Arts Council, The Lewis Prize for Music, and the Boston Neighborhood Fellowship (The Boston Foundation).

Catherine was inspired to create BAMS Fest by her experiences living in Philadelphia, where she held seven internships that shaped her unique perspective on and heightened interest in cultural festivals, particularly their ability to bring BIPOC (Black and Indigenous people of color) communities together, boost economies, and equitably expand economic mobility for artists and small businesses. When she returned to Boston, her hometown, in 2014, she entered dialogue with community members– particularly elder leaders– who told her that Boston lacked BIPOC-focused creative spaces and a broad sense of community belonging.  “I wondered if Boston was willing to do something for everyone.”   

During that same time, Catherine was attending graduate school at Simmons College (now Simmons University, a long-term Fenway Alliance member), where she received her master’s degree in General Management.  While at Simmons, Catherine participated in a competitive shark tank-like session where students presented original business pitches to an all-female panel of business leaders from various fields and communities in Boston.  Catherine’s pitch describing a large-scale festival of BIPOC performers won the competition. 

The first planning meeting for BAMS Fest was held in 2015 amongst a group of  community leaders working in diverse industries with a wide range of skill sets– finance, law, business, nonprofits, and community organizing. “I leaned in hard with the elders in my community, ” Catherine explained.

“Between May and September 2015, I built a partnership with ArtsEmerson.  For three years, BAMS Fest partnered with Emerson’s Black Box Sound concert series.  We sold out every show during our three-year run there.”   

Also in 2015, BAMS Fest partnered with the Fenway Alliance’s Opening Our Doors Festival following a meeting with Executive Director Kelly Brilliant and the Assistant Director at that time,  Arreen Andrews.  Opening our Doors was headlined by one of BAMS Fest’s premier participating jazz artists Valerie Stephens, who despite performing outdoors on an unusually hot 87- degree day in October was a huge hit.

Even with city wide support and affirmative buzz from the years 2015-2018, Catherine had to fight a tireless campaign to convince Boston’s “powers that be” not only that she and her team could accomplish a large-scale festival, but that hosting a festival focusing on Black and Brown artists would produce positive outcomes for the city.  With Catherine at the helm, the BAMS Fest endeavor started methodically, creating numerous small and well-executed events that built an organic audience for the festival’s roster of multidisciplinary artists.  As Catherine explains, “in a city like Boston, race will always be a factor, in addition to social status, and even my status as a tall African American woman! I knew I had to be patient and just continue to build up our audience. Personally, I was ready to hit the ground running, but I knew Boston didn’t work that way.”  

Catherine, ever generous in her praise for the elders of her community, passionately describes how she leaned on cultural and community leaders like Elma Lewis for guidance, inspiration, and support.  “I listen to my intuition and pay attention to the timing of when I’m supposed to meet people; slow growth has worked in my favor. We are a close-knit town, and you have to be validated by someone to get things done. On the plus side of that, provided you are received well, folks here generally make good on those introductions and truly help you.”

Finding a one-time venue, let alone a long-term home, was a particular challenge for BAMS Fest. Catherine freely admits the “venue journey” was not easy, especially considering how crucial location is to the success of large scale events in Boston. Catherine scouted potential venues for a full year, touring a diverse range of locations– everything from the Xfinity Center to the Lawn on D to the fairgrounds in Brockton.  Finally, her mother suggested Franklin Park, the location Catherine realized BAMS Festival should have its inaugural moment. “This is where civics gets involved, and politics,” Catherine says of the process of securing all the appropriate permits and other permissions. She met with Julie Burros, Boston’s Chief of Arts and Culture at that time, and the current Arts Chief Kara Elliot-Ortega, who was quick to embrace the vision for BAMS Fest.  Catherine also met with Chris Cook, then Commissioner of Parks and Recreation (who is now the Chief of Energy and the Environment).  Because Franklin Park resides within the historic Frederick Law Olmsted Park system, special considerations would need to be in place to ensure the Park would be protected. Catherine met with the Boston Police Department and the Fire Department.  

Through Dr. S. Atyia Martin, former Chief Resilience Officer for the Mayor’s Office, Catherine was introduced to Nerissa Williams Scott, CEO and Lead Creative Producer of That Child Got Talent Entertainment,  who saw the potential for BAMS Festival right away and helped her navigate the many obstacles.  Importantly, Catherine also made sure to show up at everyone else’s events to gain buy-in and support,  but also to show she supported other efforts to lift up the City, as well.

In hopes to accomplish her goal to “scale the event up,” and recognizing the barriers to accomplish large scale events in Boston for artistic and community leaders of color, Catherine created a larger Steering Committee to assist.  She explains, “Irish and Italian festivals receive a lot of bells and whistles in our city, whereas festivals featuring Black and Brown folks are often minimized, or worse, perceived as threats to public safety.  Coming in there was the expectation that I would fail.  I had to prove a higher standard of professionalism.  When you are a visionary, you so clearly see your vision, but you encounter a lot of doubt by many in the beginning.”

Catherine founded BAMS Fest in part to ampllify the Black arts movement happening in Boston. As a result of her efforts to achieve this goal, performers who participated in the inaugural festival represented an astoundingly vast variety of musical genres and styles.  Many white Bostonians assumed the festival would exclusively showcase Rap and R&B, says Catherine. “Even our logo scared some people.  So… when I personally met with so many people and staged so many smaller events—[I strived to build] trust among potential dissenters and a place of belonging for our Artists.  Relationships matter to me.  I knew the quality of events had to be very high—this was the Boston I grew up in after all, and I wanted the festival and it’s promotional events to reflect that.

“I adhere to the philosophy of Robert Lewis, Jr. (Founder & President of The Base): ‘Excellence is the standard.  I’m giving you the best of me, because we deserve it.’    The Artists who signed onto BAMS Fest–Valerie Stephens, Latrell James Obehi Janice, Elideusa— matter to me. They were the ones I started with; they were the core.” 

For Catherine and BAMS Fest, part of the formula of success has been exquisitely rigorous preparation and slow incremental progress.  She readily acknowledges she thrives with this approach, but admits the process should not be quite so difficult.  When times are especially challenging, she leans on her staff for encouragement.

“We support each other as a family. We vent and we celebrate. We have each other’s backs.”   To reinvigorate her own inspiration, Catherine turns to music as a tool for self-care. Being a first-time mother has also helped her find balance and a sense of renewal. 

“You’d be surprised what a child can teach you that is very different from what another adult says you can’t possibly do. Through my son, I’ve learned some patience, which helps me to listen more calmly.  Motherhood definitely adds a layer of magic.” 

Catherine, a creative powerhouse herself,  is a clear champion and mentor for other BIPOC Artists. With BAMS Fest now in its sixth year, Catherine hopes to see universities and cultural institutions follow her lead in creating new resources and opportunities for Black and Brown artists in their communities. These could vary from space usage, webinars, conferences, masterclasses, and public forums. More importantly, establishing a mentorship pipeline to these artists could enhance their ability to build their businesses, professionalism, and network. “It’s called a creative practice for a reason.  You’re supposed to practice and get better,” and in order to engage in creative practice, creatives require spaces, collaborators, and resources. 

Catherine prefers the term creative entrepreneur to artist.   For her, artist is a bygone term that implies a narrow group of fine artists and simultaneously has become a vague, broad catch-all. Instead, creative entrepreneur includes the necessary business savvy required to really make a creative endeavor financially viable.  “Artists take business risks every day.  They may not have been trained in the business skills they need, yet they certainly need to be able to apply those skills.”

Catherine hopes to see the City’s historically white arts and culture institutions engage in more outreach to “meet the artists where they’re at,” using their resources to find artists who may not have the connections and pipelines to get noticed on their own. Catherine believes that the survival and vitality and the arts in this moment in history calls on those with power and influence to shift the way that they engage with creative entrepreneurs, starting with financial compensation. “There are still huge inequities in pay scales for commissioned work, not just in terms of race, but also in terms of gender, sexual orientation, artistic discipline, and authentic interest from large and midsized presenting and exhibiting organizations.”  Catherine is working to discover ways in which we can balance these daunting scales.