As BSO, Boch Center struggle, fundraising takes off

Local cultural institutions await rollout of $15b in grants

TWO OF BOSTON’S leading cultural institutions had their best fundraising years ever last year as patrons rushed to help fill a void created by COVID-19.

“We’ve raised more money now than when we were open,” said Josiah Spaulding, the president and CEO of the Boch Center, which has been shut down since March 12. “The public responded. They’ve said you’re important. You’re someone we want to get back.”

Mark Volpe, the president and CEO of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, said his institution lost $53 million in ticket sales because of COVID closures, but fundraising reached its highest level ever and virtual performances have actually extended the organization’s reach. Volpe said the BSO in a typical year would reach an audience of 1.2 million, but the orchestra’s virtual audience is close to 20 million.

“The irony is we’re reaching more people than we’ve ever reached, but the business model doesn’t work,” Volpe said.

Spaulding and Volpe on Wednesday joined Mark Kerwin, the chief financial officer of the Museum of Fine Arts; Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston’s chief of arts and culture; and Melissa Sampson McMorrow, the co-chair of the nonprofit and social impact group at the Nutter law firm for a Zoom panel discussion hosted by Bill Kennedy, the chair of public policy at Nutter.

All of the institutions slashed staff and cut expenses to stay afloat and are now waiting to see if a $15 billion federal relief package for arts and cultural venues that was signed into law in December will yield some badly needed financial aid.

Spaulding said the relief a package grew out of a first-of-its kind effort by arts and cultural institutions across the country to make their collective case for help in Washington. Much to the industry’s surprise, the law passed with bipartisan support in the House and Senate and was signed into law by former president Donald Trump.

Spaulding said the law allows institutions that lost 90 percent of their earned income to apply for grants equal to 45 percent of their 2019 gross income, up to a maximum of $10 million. Spaulding said the Boch Center and the BSO would both qualify, but he said many details are still being worked out by the Small Business Administration, which is overseeing the disbursement.

Volpe said the BSO was too big of an institution to qualify for a Payroll Protection Program loan, so the new grant program is the first federal aid his institution can apply for.

“I suspect it’s going to be hyper-competitive,” he said. “I’d be shocked with the amount of need across the country whether there’s going to be $10 million for very many institutions. The politics of disbursement and geographic equity will kick in.”

When will the institutions be back?

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Volpe said he is running the numbers now on whether the symphony can make a go of it at Tanglewood this summer by concentrating most performances at its outdoor venue there. He said the hope is that the symphony can return to performances at Symphony Hall this fall.

Spaulding said he cannot reopen at reduced capacity because he needs to fill 80 to 85 percent of the seats to break even. So he is not sure when he can reopen.

Kerwin said the Museum of Fine Arts, which closed early on in the pandemic, reopened, and then closed again in December, is now planning to reopen February 3 at 25 percent of its normal capacity. He said the museum is looking to extend Monet and Basquiat Hip-Hop Generation exhibits through at least June.