Massachusetts cultural organizations waiting to see the “light at the end of the tunnel” amid closures

Graphic by Sara Magalio

By Sara Magalio
BU News Service

BOSTON — Museum wings deserted, concert halls silenced and dancers stopped in their tracks. These were the circumstances that legislators and members of the state’s cultural sector shared with the Massachusetts Cultural Council in a virtual meeting aimed at addressing the financial strain imposed on the arts community as the COVID-19 pandemic halted all non-essential business.

“Our field has been hard hit by the pandemic, and that is probably the biggest understatement that I have made in a long, long time,” said Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council and mediator of the virtual conference Thursday.

Representatives from Massachusetts organizations ranged from local festivals to internationally recognized institutions. They shared similar concerns about the fiscal implications of prolonged closure, including the seasonal nature of their work, the loss of fundraising events and the reliance on people convening in large groups for them to continue regular operations.

Cynthia Mead, executive vice president of external affairs and programming for Zoo New England, expressed the concerns of her facility, which is mostly outdoors and relies on prosperous spring and summer months to carry the continuous, fixed expenses of care for the animals, which cannot cease when the zoo is closed.

“As an outdoor venue, we are anticipating hopefully coming back pretty strong when people finally begin to venture out,” Mead said. “The bulk of our revenue comes in from March until August, and then September and October are really great weekends for us. We are not going to have the opportunity to really recoup come November, December, January, because our visitation is, as I said, mostly outdoors.”

The MCC is rolling out a COVID-19 Relief Fund “to support individuals whose creative practices and incomes are adversely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.” The council voted unanimously today to approve the program, and it expects to award about 225 individuals $1,000 grants. Applications are expected to open on April 8 and close by April 22.

Public concerns necessitating these initiatives have been confirmed through two surveys conducted by the MCC from March 16 through March 22. After tallying over 1,000 responses, the surveys revealed that nonprofit cultural organizations so far reported a revenue loss of more than $55.7 million. The council will roll out another survey this week to address the constantly shifting situations of Massachusetts’ cultural institutions, and is providing a series of webinars aimed at helping cultural organizations to navigate fiscal hardships.

Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, revealed in the session that the MFA alone incurred a $1.4 million loss since its closure two weeks ago, and expects a $14 million deficit by the end of June.

Teitelbaum added that this prediction was based on keeping the staff “as whole as possible,” which he hopes will be the case.

“Thousands of jobs have already been lost in our field and individual artists are suffering greatly, coming out of a lean winter and expecting to have their businesses revived in the spring and to find the door slammed in their faces,” Walker said.

Lucy Hale, president and CEO of the Worcester EcoTarium, the second oldest natural history society in the country housing a zoo, museum and nature center, noted that her organization began planning for the coronavirus pandemic based on previous disease outbreaks, but quickly found that this health crisis would not follow trends in recent history.

“We started planning for this thinking it was going to be kind of like the swine flu epidemic back in 2009 and thinking it would be a loss of just field trip revenue and programmatic revenue in the spring, and we quickly realized how it was snowballing,” Hale said.

Hale also expressed her concern for the economic impact of the pandemic on her organization as it relates to the greater Worcester community.

“Especially as anchor organizations in our community,” Hale said. “How do we business model for that in terms of assuming reduced admission prices, reduced membership fees, our philanthropic communities taking major hits, social service needs increasing, and how do we really be vibrant institutions for the future, and where will those revenues come from to sustain us?”

Joe Thompson, director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, also known as Mass MoCA, noted the direct impacts of the closure of the museum and performance space on North Adams. The museum is currently closed through May 1 and has already laid off 122 of its 165 employees, according to Thompson.

Thompson revealed that local hotels were forced to close shortly after the museum shuttered its doors and that the museum, which had an estimated economic impact in North Adams last year of about $52 million according to a Williams College report, lost some 70% of its annual income just two days after its closure.

“That’s the story from North Adams,” Thompson said. “It’s grim, we’re going to bounce back but it’s grim I must say.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D- Lowell, Senate chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, noted that cultural events and the businesses that rely on patronage from their attendees will be impacted through the summer, referencing the upcoming 400th anniversary celebration of the Mayflower voyage and founding of the Plymouth Colony and the cancellation of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket.

“This whole industry impacts a lot of other things,” Kennedy said. “The restaurant industry is impacted. There will be a lot of restaurants that won’t do as well because Jacob’s Pillow won’t be open this year, and so maybe you don’t need as many workers, and then those workers can’t pay their mortgages, and it goes on and on and has this ripple effect that goes all throughout the commonwealth.”

Sabrina Avilés, director of the Boston Latino International Film Festival, noted that even though the festival is scheduled for September, the event’s reliance on distributors’ participation has already created concern for the viability of the festival’s continuation.

“A lot of distributors are reticent to even negotiate with us,” Avilés said. “Because they are still on the fence of, are you going to happen or not?”

Kennedy echoed this concern that the uncertainty of the length of time that cultural institutions must remain closed poses a significant challenge in planning how these organizations will bounce back in the future.

“One of the problems with these issues is that you can’t really see the light at the end of the tunnel yet,” Kennedy said. “Once you can plan for when this is likely to end and when people can gather again in groups and so forth, I think it will be a lot easier on everybody.”

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