How do arts and culture come back?

It won’t be easy, and it will be expensive

SINCE GOV. CHARLIE BAKER’S first emergency order was issued and social distancing was implemented, many local news outlets have provided excellent and thorough coverage of the economic impacts of COVID-19 on cultural organizations in Massachusetts. Our own research at the Mass Cultural Council puts numbers behind the stories: more than $264 million in lost revenue and 15,000 jobs affected. And these numbers keep growing.

Even as we continue to document the damage to this critical segment of the Commonwealth’s economy, the cultural sector is tackling the next hurdle in front of it. We must design a post-COVID strategy that brings Massachusetts’ vibrant cultural landscape back to life.

In order to do this, we must answer at least two important questions:

How do we financially stabilize and secure our cultural non-profit organizations? And, how do we gradually re-open our facilities, so that people feel safe and the public health is assured, without digging the financial hole even deeper?

The answer to the first question is both simple and hard. COVID-19 robbed the cultural sector of virtually every income stream on which it depends. Earned income (ticket sales), contributed income, and endowment income all but disappeared. Our non-profits operate on slim margins in the best of times. This crisis required more than trimming the fat off lean organizations. It meant cutting into the heart and muscle of the work, laying off staff, and eliminating programming.

The quarter of a billion dollars in losses we’ve tabulated since social distancing measures were implemented in March is a fraction of the ultimate damage. It is impossible to know right now the size of the financial infusion necessary to rescue these cultural treasures and bring back the talent and intellectual capital we’ve lost.

The second question goes to the very soul of the work we do. Cultural organizations bring people together, in concert halls, theaters, and museums. These will likely be among the last places to reopen. The antidote to the coronavirus is the purpose of arts and culture. We can all imagine new rules and practices that limit attendance to plays and concerts.  Maybe we can fill only half a house and every other seat. But we won’t produce half a play, or perform with half an orchestra.  The cost of the production remains the same while ticket revenue plummets. No doubt amped-up sanitation practices and even upgrades in ventilation and air purification systems may be required. Bringing our cultural offerings back online will be expensive.

The challenge is daunting. It will require federal, state, and local investment and commitment to meet it. The cultural sector of Massachusetts is a critical part of our economy supporting thousands of jobs in our communities, both in cultural organizations and Main Street businesses. In a post-COVID Massachusetts, our cultural organizations will be the first responders in addressing the effects of the isolation and loneliness that were a necessary price to pay to defeat a deadly pandemic.

Meet the Author

Anita Walker

Executive director, Mass Cultural Council
Our collective action: social distancing, wearing of masks, and other sanitation practices, will defeat the coronavirus. Our collective action and support will also be necessary to revive our creative economy, our cultural treasures, and the heart and soul of the best of Massachusetts.

Anita Walker is the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.