Pandemic Carves Hole In State’s Cultural Sector

MASS MoCA opened two decades ago in the city of North Adams. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)
MASS MoCA, in the city of North Adams. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)

The arts and culture sector, a major piece of the Massachusetts economy, will need hundreds of millions of dollars and multiple years to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, according to testimony delivered to state senators on Wednesday.

Senators have been holding a series of listening sessions to gauge the pandemic's effects on different segments on the economy and check in on the gradual reopening of businesses.

During Wednesday's session, focused on arts, culture, tourism and small business, Troy Siebels of the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts said that the performing arts have been "decimated" by the pandemic and many businesses operating in the field will not survive.

His own 2,300-seat theater in Worcester has suffered about a $5 million revenue loss and can't feasibly reopen with social distancing in place, Siebels said.

"It's pretty sobering," he told Sens. Adam Hinds, Ed Kennedy and Diana DiZoglio. "I'm usually the optimistic guy, but I think many of us will not survive this, and that's a shame because we are economic engines and vitality engines for our communities."

According to the advocacy group MASSCreative, audiences for nonprofit arts and cultural events generate $877 million in spending at restaurants and stores. The arts, entertainment and recreation sector employed an average of more than 63,000 people in 2018, with an annual total of $2.5 billion in compensation.

"Without immediate action, organizations will shutter and the artists who are at the heart of our sector will leave Massachusetts," MASSCreative executive director Emily Ruddock said. "Our sector's strength is our diversity and volume of activity. COVID-19 and the economic crisis threaten that diversity and our ability to play our role as a proven economic driver and community connector."

Ruddock urged lawmakers to prioritize arts and culture as they grapple with funding decisions made more difficult by revenue shortfalls, uncertain federal aid prospects, and needs across all facets of the economy.

She asked them to ensure artists and other creative professionals are eligible for workforce development programs, to continue including gig economy workers in the unemployment benefits program, and to pass a Hinds bill (S 2022) she said would put artists back to work by creating a fund for public art to be included in new state building projects.

David Slatery, the Massachusetts Cultural Council's acting director, said that in addition to his organization's efforts to support artists and organizations, it is "clear that a more robust public investment will also be necessary."

Bethann Steiner, the council's public affairs director, tallied the total cost of recovery for Bay State cultural nonprofits at $441.8 million. The sector has received $100.2 million in aid from the federal government and the cultural council, she said, but lost $425 million in revenue and faces $117 million in costs for implementing reopening and recovery strategies.

"We know it's staggering. We know it's dire," Steiner said, urging lawmakers to consider the "negative and long-lasting" economic impacts of not investing in arts and culture.

Before the arrival of COVID-19 in March, the cultural sector supported 71,000 jobs statewide, with an economic impact of $2.3 billion, Steiner said. The council, based on a June survey in which 68 percent of responding organizations said they expect layoffs, furloughs and reductions in pay and hours, said 17,020 cultural sector jobs will be affected COVID-19.

Cultural nonprofits estimate it will take an average of two years, and in some cases up to five, to bring their programming and finances back to pre-pandemic levels, Steiner said.

When Massachusetts this month entered Phase 3 of the Baker administration's economic restart strategy, museums, cultural and historical sites, and outdoor performance venues that have been closed since March were cleared to reopen with new capacity limits and other restrictions in place.

MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, reopened on July 11. Museum director Joseph Thompson said the museum had to raise a lot of money to make it through the closure, and took in about $1.6 million in private contributions. He said it also received about $900,000 through the federal Paycheck Protection Program and he is "quite nervous" about how it will get through the next six months without something like the PPP money.

Thompson described the museum as a driver of tourism for the area — as it has expanded, he said, the number of hotel rooms in North Adams has grown from 16 to 246. He said that within hours of the museum announcing its closure in March, "the three leading hotels in North Adams and Williamstown announced they'd shut their doors."

With ticket time slots and capacity limits, MASS MoCA is now receiving visitors at about half its normal level, Thompson said. The guests are "rigorously" masked and practicing social distancing, he said.

"Museums are places where people are used to being told to stand back and don't touch," Thompson said.

This article was originally published on July 15, 2020.



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