Massachusetts' cultural sector struggles to rebound financially

As darkness falls, people gather to watch "The Tempest" on Boston Common in 2021. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
As darkness falls, people gather to watch "The Tempest" on Boston Common in 2021. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In-person events resumed in 2021, much to the relief of besieged arts and cultural organizations across Massachusetts. But the fitful reopening did not bring the flood of audiences many institutions expected — and they paid a financial price.

That’s according to a new report from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Cultural organizations reported nearly $193 million in lost revenue in the second year of the pandemic. Ninety percent of that revenue was income the organizations expected to earn at in-person events — ticket and concession sales that never appeared.

“Those who consume art and culture are not coming back in droves as we planned,” said Michael Bobbitt, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “There's still a lot of innovation happening in the digital world, but most of our revenue comes from people attending arts organizations in person, and they’re not coming back as fast as we hoped.”

This is the sixth COVID economic impact survey the Massachusetts Cultural Council has released since March of 2020. In the first year of the pandemic, the council surveyed 981 cultural organizations and 2,951 cultural workers, reporting a total of $618.7 million in lost revenue and income among them.

Only 281 organizations and 131 individuals were surveyed in this latest iteration of the report, likely reflecting survey fatigue, Bobbitt said. The much smaller sample size makes the results from the two years difficult to compare.

“It’s really more about the cumulative loss rather than apples to apples,” Bobbitt said. “I think the one truth about the survey is that the need is still there. It’s still great.”

The Massachusetts Cultural Council hopes the revenue losses captured in the latest survey support its argument for a budget increase. The council is funded through a line item in the state budget, and last year it received $21,375,000, the largest in three decades. Most of that money was given away in grants to cultural organizations and individuals impacted by pandemic closures. This year, the council is asking for $27.4 million, to bring it in line with its 1988 budget — the highest in state history.

Of course, that number does not account for inflation. Today, the 1988 budget would be worth closer to $65 million, “which I don’t think we could get,” Bobbitt said.

Like last year, the council plans to grant most of its annual budget to cultural organizations and arts workers. It is also charged with distributing $60.1 million in state pandemic recovery funds — one-time grants to help cultural organizations and workers recover from COVID-related losses.

“We're going to do great damage with that money, but it doesn't really address the loss,” Bobbitt said, pointing to the cumulative $813 million in lost revenue captured by the council’s six COVID impact surveys.

In the meantime, Bobbitt said Massachusetts residents can buoy artists and cultural organizations. “If you have extra money, make a donation,” he said. “And if you have extra time, go see a show.”

Headshot of Amelia Mason

Amelia Mason Senior Arts & Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.



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