Boston’s corporate sector needs to step up on arts

Firms need to broaden their support beyond large institutions

WHEN I WAS a working musician, few metrics mattered more to me than my orchestra’s concert attendance. A full house has a flywheel effect where the energy between the performers and audience creates a positive feedback loop. It’s no surprise then that corporations tend to support large arts institutions with loyal audiences. This type of corporate sponsorship does good for the community and reaches target customers. It is a win-win.

COVID-19, however, showed that attendance will be an imperfect measure of the health and relevance of the arts sector going forward. With lingering audience uncertainty, alternative benchmarks such as access, equity, and innovation will give a clearer picture of the art sector’s value. This is particularly true in Boston.

Some of the constraints on the local arts market became apparent as I researched strategy for a well-known Boston-based arts group. A 2016 study showed that Boston’s non-profit arts are heavily dependent on ticket revenue and individual donations while corporate, foundation, and government support lagged other key cities. This proved painful when, due to the pandemic, arts and culture in Massachusetts lost an estimated $781 million in earned revenue. In other words, reliance on strong attendance pre-pandemic has now turned into a liability looking forward. To build back a more connected and resilient arts scene, corporate philanthropy must see beyond “butts in seats” and support the vulnerable small and mid-sized arts groups that serve many purposes.

Pre-COVID, Boston’s arts organizations had a pragmatic approach to programming—they prioritized ticket sales over experimentation. As a result, Boston’s arts sector produces fewer new works than its peer cities, according to The Boston Foundation’s report. Without new sources of funding, this innovation disparity will likely increase. Boston has one of the world’s most dynamic economies where innovative people propel its resilience and growth. The same should be true for its arts sector.

In response to the ordeals and lessons of the past few years, there have been positive adaptations. Government and foundation support increased to fill in some funding gaps. And the city’s flagship organizations are presenting newtimely, and challenging works. But less wealthy organizations, in particular those designed to push artistic frontiers and foster curiosity, need more support.

The arts are a driver of economic development. A return on a corporation’s investment in the arts is a better city to do business in. A city rich in culture also has a high quality of life that attracts, engages, and retains talent. But here in Boston, we are in danger of losing some of that vitality.

We have new National Endowment for the Arts data that put numbers to what we already suspected: Arts and culture is one of the most exposed sectors to the pandemic. The arts declined at a faster rate (6.4 percent) than the overall economy (3.4 percent). It’s a rate similar to the airlines. The Mass Arts Council’s new report shows that local organizations lost nearly $200 million in earned revenue between March 2021 and February 2022 alone.

Since the return of in-person performances, the much-hoped-for rebound in attendance from pent-up demand was deflated by the pandemic’s continued presence. The damage will leave a mark for some time to come.

It’s true that only  5 percent of the $471 billion of the nation’s charitable giving comes from corporations. The lion’s share comes from generous individual Americans. And those ratios aren’t likely to change substantively, according to Giving USA. However, corporate giving has room to grow in Boston, philanthropy is a good investment, and the need for more access, creativity, and connection is greater than ever.

Robert Putnam, a Harvard Kennedy School professor, has warned for years about Americans’ diminishing participation in civic life. But engagement with others is a flywheel for more participation. He wrote, “People who listen to lots of classical music are more likely, not less likely, than others to attend [baseball] games.”

Meet the Author

Robert H Simonds

Masters in public adminstration candidate, Kennedy School at Harvard University
The performing arts were uniquely affected by the pandemic—this is not a sector that can sustainably migrate to Zoom. The performing arts, however, are also uniquely able to rebuild social cohesion and trust. The corporate sector, by embracing more cultural responsibility, can support a more prosperous, diverse, and vibrant city.

Robert H. Simonds is a masters of public administration candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the former principal second violinist of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.