State’s cultural institutions coping with pandemic closings

The Worcester Art Museum (Massachusetts Office of Travel / Flickr)

By Camila Beiner
BU News Service

BOSTON — Massachusetts cultural institutions are losing millions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs due to COVID-19, imposing significant damage on one of the state’s leading economic drivers, according to the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development Committee.

As of April 15, nonprofit cultural organizations in the commonwealth reported a loss of more than quarter of a billion dollars, in a survey conducted by the Mass Cultural Council. 

Anita Walker, the council’s executive director, said the organization polled the cultural sector from April 4 to April 14 to better understand the financial impact the coronavirus was having on individuals and nonprofits. The council received 700 responses from cultural organizations in Massachusetts.

“I’m saying that these are not projected losses,” Walker said. “This is the money they had already lost to that date.”

Despite the revenue loss, she said the arts and culture sector has been really encouraging and continues to provide services to their communities online. She said as organizations create these enriching cultural experiences for their audiences, nobody has figured out how to monetize the digital delivery in the same way as they do when visitors come through their doors. 

Committee chair Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Lowell, said in Massachusetts, 75% of residents on average attend about one cultural event per month, which is higher than any other state. People who attend local events also contribute to restaurants, municipal parking and other local businesses, he said.

“The tourism industry is the third-largest segment of the economy in Massachusetts,” Kennedy said. “It accounts for $2.3 billion in spending, well over $100 million in state tax revenue and over 71,000 jobs.” 

The impact is being felt across Massachusetts, prompting state Reps. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, and Smitty Pignatelli, D-Lenox, to file legislation establishing a $75 million COVID-19 nonprofit cultural organization emergency relief fund. 

“The fund is going to help these cultural attractions really open their doors at some point and be able to do some planning as to how they are going to be able to bring tourists and visitors to the communities over the next 18 months so they can hopefully survive this pandemic,” Barrett said.

The Berkshires

Mass MoCA is an essential part of the northern Berkshire economy, Barrett said.

“We do not have any major business in the northern Berkshire area so it is very dependent on arts and culture and institutions like Mass MoCA,” he added.

There are three hotels dependent upon tourists and visitors coming to North Adams and three others in neighboring Williamstown, home to the Clark Art Institute, which generates a “tremendous” amount of revenues to their respective communities, Barrett said. 

It will take Mass MoCA millions of dollars to reopen their doors because they are so dependent on arts, Barrett said.

“It is just going to take a long time to come back and a lot of businesses will not be able to survive,” he said.

Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson said when the museum decided to close in mid-March it took 90 minutes for the two leading hotels in North Adams to announce their immediate closure. 

A challenge for Mass MoCA is that 70% of its budget comes directly from earned income of tickets, concessions and retail, he said. When the museum closed, Barrett said the revenue disappeared, leading to curtailed operations and the layoff of 122 of its 165 employees. 

Thompson said the museum has spent the majority of its time focusing on plans to reopen. He said one benefit of Mass MoCA is that it has six acres of galleries and about four acres of outdoor space where people can gather safely.  

“When we get word that it is safe to open we will be ready to open our doors with proper social distancing protocols in place that may be timed, ticketed and reserved in advance admission,” Thompson said. 

In the meantime, the museum has been sending out “little art breaks” three times a day, using video clips and images of past programming where art patrons could respond and send back photographs related to the clip, he said.

“The essence of what we do is almost the opposite of digital content,” Thompson said. “We are completely organized and totally focused on gathering large numbers of people around creative acts and for us that has always meant bringing people to North Adams.”

The museum has grown from about 60,000 to 70,000 visitors annually over 20 years ago to about 250,000 to 300,000 today, he said. Half of its programming – and revenue – is in performing arts.

New Bedford

Tourism and culture also is an important economic driver in southeastern Massachusetts, according to Amanda McMullen, president and CEO of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

The economic burden of the pandemic on the museum is massive, with about $200,000 of lost revenue every month it is closed. That includes admission tickets, school field trips and canceled weddings, she said.

The museum applied for the federal payroll protection program when the museum first closed, which she said was a huge relief because there would be a guaranteed eight weeks of payroll to “keep the team going and motivated.”

She said the museum also applied for an economic injury disaster loan and the CARES Act for additional funding, with the goal to keep people employed and focused during the pandemic. 

“The Whaling Museum is an important economic driver for the city of New Bedford and the Southcoast region of the commonwealth,” McMullen said. “Remaining strong and vital is critical for the museum, students, patrons and for the overall economic health of the community.”

McMullen said just last year the museum attracted over 102,000 visitors from 50 states and 36 countries. It is a $4 million business with a complex set of revenue lines requiring a lot of financial management. She said the museum has made difficult decisions from an expense management standpoint and cut $700,000 out of the budget.

“I look at nothing but revenue loss, yet we have been really focused and really committed to keeping our team whole,” McMullen said.

McMullen said she has a very creative and supportive staff determined to keep engagement really high. The museum is committed to creating connections with the community through education and outreach. 

“We immediately initiated things that were in our strategic plan that were two years out in terms of virtual programming and virtual education,” McMullen said. “We still have to be very creative about how we will be looking at increasing support from the community but not relying on it.”

McMullen said the staff launched a “museum at home” series for children, parents and educators to escape from the reality of staying home. People can engage in exploring collections through audio and virtual tours, interactive activities and trivia games, she said.


Arts and culture are also key drivers in Worcester, according to Matthias Waschek, director of the Worcester Art Museum. 

The goal for the museum, he said, is to make sure long-term perspectives are not compromised. It is important to seize opportunities instead of fixating on the undeniable downsides of what is happening. 

Waschek said he brainstormed the idea to look at the “web not only as a tool to convey information but as an artwork in its own light.”

The museum budgets about $340,000 annually for its website, which is a very small amount compared to big museums that invest millions of dollars on their sites, he said.

This pandemic has allowed the institution to look at its online presence in a very different manner than before the crisis started, he said. It also opens up a chance to work with other organizations on sharing resources and starting new program formats. 

“We will use all that knowledge that we have gathered to better serve our communities,” Waschek said. “And probably to take this as an opportunity for grassroots initiatives that we weren’t able to or we weren’t considering before.”

He said the museum was able to apply to the payroll protection program and has been awarded a substantial amount of money allowing it to keep all its staff until the end of June. He said this is very important because he has heard of big museums that lost half their employees. 

“If the Worcester Art Museum is forced to cut staff and budgets due to the COVID-19 economic impact, that will have a ripple effect throughout our local economy,” Waschek said. “Multiply that by hundreds of organizations around the state and the economic impact will be significant.”

He said in the past two years the museum has had to cut down 10% of its budget, so letting go any staff could have devastating consequences for the capacity to reopen quickly.

“It was initially our worst-case scenario to be closed until the end of August and it now looks like a likely scenario,” Waschek said. “We are approaching funders because under that scenario we will lose probably close to 50% of our own revenue and likely about 40% of gifts and grants.”

Waschek said the pandemic also raises the question for many organizations of whether they should be fundraising for themselves when that money could have gone to hospitals that are in need.

“Our relevance needs to be seen not only how we are touching people’s lives,” Waschek said, “but also how our relevance compares to other needs that our society has right now.”

This article was originally published in The Hampshire Gazette.

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