Art for everyone’s sake

Without financial relief, the arts will become inaccessible to all but a few

DYSTOPIAN STORYTELLING IMAGINES time and place without light, color, and life—elements that art, music and performance provide. We’ve had a taste of it during these many weeks at home, and it’s changing the world around us. If we’re not careful, these changes could be with us long after the coronavirus is gone.

The arts are a public good—not merely a consumer product—because everyone benefits from the arts, not just those who choose to attend or engage in the arts. We all benefit when neighborhoods are more livable, when students do better in school, when our economy is more productive, and when diverse populations come together.

Despite its small size, Massachusetts is home to world-class cultural institutions and hundreds of community-based arts and cultural nonprofits that entertain and educate all residents of the Commonwealth. Our ecosystem reaches people who live in our cities, suburbs, and rural locales. We reach people at all income levels and of all races, ethnicities, abilities, genders, and sexual orientations. Before the pandemic, this incredibly diverse and innovative industry accounted for $25.8 billion, or 4.8 percent, of the Massachusetts economy and 140,593 jobs.

As the state reopens, many arts, cultural, and creative organizations will need to wait until phases three or four before they can return to revenue-generating activities. We are still learning about the coronavirus, but the science is clear that choral organizations like the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus may be among the last to open.

In late March, one of the first stories that helped people understand the ease with which the coronavirus could transmit from one person to another was that of the Skagit Valley Chorale. On March 10, with no reported cases of COVID-19 in Skagit County, Washington, the group gathered for a rehearsal. Within days, chorus members were experiencing fevers. Three weeks later, 53 of the 61 people who sang that evening had become ill with COVID-19 and two of them had died. This month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a case study of the event, concluding that transmission of the coronavirus had been “augmented by the act of singing.”

The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus has notched a lot of firsts in its history—touring the Middle East as an openly gay chorus among the most notable—but being the first choral group to take the stage amid a global pandemic will not be among them. The chorus—and many other organizations like us—will not be returning to the stage before there are better treatment options for COVID-19 or a vaccine.

How will arts organizations survive? Individual donors have been generous, but with the unemployment rate at 15 percent in the state, people are pinched. Corporate interests, an important funder of the arts, have retrenched. Just a few months ago, the arts ecosystem in Massachusetts was a flywheel that generated energy, excitement, and revenue. Without intervention, it will become a barbell with large cultural institutions at one end and extremely low budget pop-ups at the other. Without public support, we risk a devastating culling of the mid-sized dance companies, theaters, musical groups, and galleries.

These are organizations that bring people together and generate economic activity in neighborhoods and business districts throughout the state. Many of these mid-size organizations, such as Boston Center for the Arts in Boston’s South End, The Dance Complex in Cambridge, Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, Community Music School of Springfield, or IS183 Art School of the Berkshires also function as local cultural anchors. These are spaces that numerous artists and other organizations rely up upon for rehearsing, teaching, presenting, and gathering.

After the wave of cancellations in March that cost arts nonprofits an estimated $264 million, many organizations quickly adapted to find new ways to stay connected with their audiences. We’ve seen incredibly innovative virtual and online performances. But this isn’t sustainable. As we know from the media business, giving away your content for free is not a winning long-term strategy.

We understand that local municipalities and the state will face historic budget shortfalls as a result of the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. But some federal money has already flowed to the state. More is coming. We need to prepare to get it out the door quickly to organizations that will not be able to return to revenue-generating activities until phases three or four of the state’s reopening.

Arts organizations need grants and access to small business recovery programs. The state can allocate some of its CARES Act funding for arts, cultural, and creative organizations. In its next recovery bill, Congress needs to include provisions for full reimbursement of self-insured unemployment plans and changes to the universal charitable tax deduction by removing the $300 cap and by eliminating the 60 percent limit on adjusted gross income.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Emily Ruddock

Executive director, MASSCreative
Other cities and states around the country are making plans to support their arts organizations. Los Angeles is using city funds to make small grants to artists and arts nonprofits. Phoenix has allocated $2 million of its CARES Act funding for cultural groups. New York City has an arts industry specific reopening task force. Connecticut and Utah included statewide arts leaders on their COVID-19 economic task force groups.

Massachusetts needs to do the same by offering more to the arts sector than guidance about sanitation standards. Absent that, our story will become dystopian indeed.

Craig Coogan is the executive director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. Emily Ruddock is the executive director of MASSCreative.