Museum of Fine Arts losses at $1.4m and growing

MassMOCA has laid off 122 of its 165-member staff

A MASSACHUSETTS ART MUSEUM laid off almost three-quarters of its staff. Another expects to face a budget deficit in the tens of millions of dollars. Leisure destinations that rely on warm-season surges are worried they may not begin to feel recovery until 2021.

One after another, members of the state’s arts and tourism sector shared stories Thursday of financial strain and indefinite worry amid the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down all non-essential business.

Nonprofit cultural organizations in Massachusetts have already lost more than $55 million in revenue as a result of the outbreak, the Massachusetts Cultural Council reported after surveying members.

While many are tapping reserves and making tough budgeting decisions to stay afloat, they said they will need financial support from state and federal lawmakers if they are to return to strength once the outbreak subsides.

“The numbers are staggering,” said Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, during a Thursday conference call with leaders from across the industry. “That just gives you the tip of the iceberg of what we’re facing here.”

Representatives from more than half a dozen organizations joined the call Thursday to share on-the-ground stories about the pressure that museums, cultural centers, music schools and other institutions are facing.

The financial impacts they described are severe. In North Adams, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — often referred to as MASS MoCA — has already cut 122 employees from a staff that totals about 165.

While the museum can lean on its endowment in the short term, that only amounts to about 1.5 times its annual budget and will not stretch, museum director Joe Thompson said during the call.

“It’s grim,” he said. “We’re going to bounce back, but it’s grim.”

The Museum of Fine Arts, one of the largest players in the state’s arts sector, has already lost $1.4 million in revenue after closing two weeks ago and will likely be facing a $14 million deficit by June 30, said MFA Director Matthew Teitelbaum.

Because the museum has more than 500 employees, it will not qualify for several forms of small business aid made available in the sweeping $2 trillion federal relief law signed by President Donald Trump.

Teitelbaum stressed that the cultural sector as a whole is an important cog that contributes “hundreds of millions of dollars” in revenue to the state economy, driving patrons to nearby restaurants, hotels and other local businesses.

“This is a key moment where we’re trying to figure out the future together,” he said. “We need the support of government. I speak on behalf of all cultural workers, but we also want to support you. We want to help you as you think about how tourism comes back to our state, how education systems become robust again.”

Other organizations have worked to maintain some semblance of stability remotely, even amid the challenges that poses. The Northampton Community Music Center has shifted some lessons online, but technical problems can prevent ensemble groups from performing in sync.

The Dedham School of Music tried to run an online replacement version of a planned fundraiser, but found “it’s really difficult to ask people to do that right now when they don’t know when their next paycheck is coming,” said executive director Amy Fichera.

Both chairs of the Legislature’s Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development Committee, Rep. Paul McMurtry and Sen. Edward Kennedy, said they agreed that the government will play a key role in helping the industries, particularly in the transition out of the crisis.

“One of the things we want to start looking forward to is ways to help in the short-term to get us through but then also in the long-term,” McMurtry said. “How do we rebound and how do we heal and set us on the path to recovery?”

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Chris Lisinski

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As initial unemployment claims surged to record levels for the second straight week, Kennedy said the effects of the pandemic will linger beyond the immediate crisis requiring social distancing.

“The health crisis itself is one track, and that will go away,” he said. “But the health crisis has caused an economic crisis and that’s not going to go away so quickly.”