Arts + Policy

Arts + Policy

Meet Michael Bobbitt, state’s new arts leader

Meet Michael Bobbitt, state’s new arts leader

‘Arts and culture is inherently a social justice medium’

THE LIFE STORY of Michael Bobbitt is probably very similar to what he would like to replicate for residents statewide as he takes over as the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Bobbitt, as a young boy growing up in Maryland just outside Washington, DC, was exposed to the arts, took a strong interest, and built a career around music, dance, and theater. Now, as the state’s top arts official, he hopes to foster an environment in Massachusetts that would allow similar experiences for young people across the state.

 Joining The Codcast at the end of his first week on the job, the 48-year-old Bobbitt introduced himself professionally and personally. He said he is the father of an adopted son from Vietnam who is now 19 and studying marine biology at the University of Florida. He is also a careful eater. “I only eat vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and grains. Nothing processed, no sugar, no dairy, and no meat,” he said.

 His first performance as an artist came in first grade, when he played Hansel in the play “Hansel and Gretel.” At age 8 he saw the play “Porgy and Bess” and realized white people weren’t the only ones capable of appearing on stage. At about the same time, he was invited into the band room at his school and invited to pick one of the instruments.

 “The trumpet was the shiniest and prettiest to me,” he said of a choice that launched him on an adventure that led to a fellowship with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, and later a music scholarship to Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. He went on to study classical ballet, participate in musical theater, and write plays. He served as the artistic director of Adventure Theatre-MTC, a children’s theater in Washington, DC, for 12 years, and in August 2019 took the same post at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown.

 “I’ve always enjoyed all the work I’ve done as an artist. But part of me was always intrigued by the process,” he said. “I always remember being in play practice or rehearsal, and being very intrigued by watching all the people in the room create this beautiful thing. You had the playwright, the director, the music director, the choreographer, and all these artists, and together everyone is using their imagination to imagine what the final product would be like. And that intrigued me so much.”

 Over the last 15 years, Bobbitt said he has learned to be an arts leader, gaining an understanding of fundraising, management, culture, finances, and how government and the arts can work together. He said all those experiences at individual arts organizations have prepared him for his current job at the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

 “Now I get to do that for a whole state of arts and cultural organizations and artists,” he said.

 With COVID-19, It may be the worst of times for arts organizations, but Bobbitt said arts and culture are needed now more than ever – for dealing with the fallout from the disease as well as the inequalities and racism it has revealed. “In many ways, it’s a good time to be coming to this,” he said. “Arts and culture is inherently a social justice medium.”

 He steps into an environment on Beacon Hill that has rarely viewed the arts as a top state priority. Asked if the agency’s $18 million budget is adequate, he politely fends off the question but makes clear lawmakers, once he gets his bearings on Beacon Hill, are going to be hearing a lot from him.

 “I hope they’re looking forward to seeing me in their offices quite a bit,” he said.

There are many Amanda Gormans out there

There are many Amanda Gormans out there

Unique and powerful voices are all around us

RIGHT NOW, poetry has our attention.

On January 20, Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in US history, performed her breathtaking poem The Hill We Climb in front of 40 million viewers. The power and sublime beauty of her words, the grace of her poetic hand gestures, and the brilliance with which she captured this moment in history inspired audiences around the world. It was a piece of writing that at once held the trauma of our past, the grief of our present, and the hopes for our future.

That evening, when Amanda Gorman went on CNN’s 360°, news anchor Anderson Cooper said to her, “It is just so thrilling to see such a bright talent burst like a supernova.”

As executive director of 826 Boston, a youth writing and publishing organization based in Roxbury that is part of the largest youth writing network in the country, it has been a gift to suddenly find poetry on the evening news, late-night talk shows, and even at the Superbowl. Amanda Gorman, who is a champion of youth voice and leadership and is on the board of 826 National, has inspired a nation to embrace the written word.

And yet, while the widespread emergence of Amanda’s extraordinary talent is cause for celebration and has skyrocketed her to celebrity status, it would be a disservice to lose sight of the abundance of talented young poets right here in our own communities. Gorman was 16 years old when she became the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles. There are unique and powerful voices all around us, with important stories to tell, ready to blaze their own paths forward.

Alondra Bobadilla is just one example. She’s a Hyde Park resident, and a senior at Fenway High School. In January 2020, she was selected as Boston’s first youth poet laureate. From her poem Tomorrow: “It is time to ask little girls and little boys what they want to do, not what they want to be. For the title is weightless, but the work is the fruit of good teaching rooted in intention and loving kindness.”

Alondra joins the ranks of youth poet laureates in 40 other cities across the country.

The talent in our city overflows at youth spoken word events and festivals like Wicked Loud (formerly Louder Than A Bomb; a MassLEAP event), and in 826 Boston publications that feature collaborations with outstanding teachers in the Boston Public Schools. The creativity, wit, and beauty that pulses through the writing of these young authors frequently leaves audiences awestruck.

Alondra was chosen from a group of 10 semi-finalists, including Tariq Charles and Eliza Carpenter from Dorchester, and Asiyah Herrera from Roxbury—three students who will be published in How We May Appear, 826 Boston’s city-wide anthology of poems and essays featuring a foreword by Amanda Gorman (release date April 2021).

In the collection, Asiyah, who is the 826 youth literary advisory board team leader, writes:

“Mi casa is breathed to life by a thousand songs,

A thousand ancestors

A Mosaic of mimicry,

Mi casa cantas debajo del luna llena,

She is full of stories,

Intricate, detailed, like handiwork of our quilts.”

In her foreword to introduce the book, Gorman responds to Asiyah’s piece, and to the anthology as a whole: “Here, words are understood as mosaic, quilt, as root, as instruments of connection and humanity. Reading the collection from my sunlit apartment in Los Angeles, it is hard not to be struck with the vision that these authors present: a vibrant and youthful Boston, with its tongue of many languages, and heart of many songs.”

Amanda Gorman has left us with an invitation to listen, and to support the young poets and writers who share their vision with us. Go to their readings. Support their work. Snap your fingers in appreciation.

A supernova is a rare stellar explosion. While Amanda Gorman’s bright light has captured a nation’s attention, may it also build an awareness that this is a time for poetry to continue to inspire us, to move us, and to help us understand the moment. May it be a cultural awakening in which we recognize that young artists of color are at the center of it, and that their voices have been loud and clear for a long time. Now that we’re paying attention, we need to keep listening.

Jessica Drench is the executive director of 826 Boston, a youth writing and publishing nonprofit organization based in Roxbury. You can read more young voices on their website’s gallery of student work at

As BSO, Boch Center struggle, fundraising takes off

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?

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.

The intersection of race, COVID-19, and the arts 

The intersection of race, COVID-19, and the arts 

BAMS Fest founder Catherine Morris sees peril – and opportunity – in the moment  

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has had a disproportionate impact on the black community, at the same time as a national reckoning on race relations called attention to societal ills stemming from systemic racism. The economic displacement caused by COVID-19 has also particularly hurt artists, who are often part of the gig economy. 

What does this unique moment mean for the black arts community? CommonWealth talked about the pandemic, arts, and racism with Catherine Morris, the founder and executive director of Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Fest. BAMS is a nonprofit that aims to break down racial and social barriers to arts, music, and culture for communities and artists of color across Greater Boston. It produces performances and public programs curated from a black perspective. Its trademark is an annual summer music festival, first held in 2018.  

Morris, a Boston native who lives on the South Shore, started BAMS Fest in May 2015, as a graduate student in the business school at Simmons University. 

What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation with Morris.  


COMMONWEALTH: The black community has been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. How has that impact been felt among black artists?  

CATHERINE MORRIS: The biggest thing is that they don’t have any spaces to create. The artists we work with are heavily dependent on being in their laboratory or their zone of creation and being able to go to those spaces to spark creation and imagination. They’re denied that because of COVID. Even if venues or spaces are open, there’s many more restrictions that impact their ability to go to those spaces.  

Events we’re doing, everyone has to get tested no matter whatA lot of artists don’t have access to free COVID testing sites. They’re paying for it in an economy where they’re 1099 [independent contractor] workers and they’re not getting any income. Trying to survive this has been really hard, and I think for black artists particularly they’re trying to navigate in virtual spaces. If not everyone has the technical resources to do that, they’re going to be left in the dark in ways I think are really going to hurt our whole society but really our economy. Because our city, our state relies on the creative economy, relies on the arts and culture sector to keep it vibrant and enhance quality of life. And I suspect the majority of people who keep that economy alive are black and brown people.  

CW: Does the pandemic change the content of art that’s being produced, or just the format? 

MORRIS: The art…is stronger than ever. The way the artists reach the masses, the format is what has changed. Music now is enjoyed by being on a screen. And it takes away from the human connection, the energy, the flow, the being in a roomful of strangers. It’s not the same with a screen. You can’t go up to the stage. It’s very transactional, it’s not transformative.  

The upswing is artists get to be really creative about how they want to reach a broader audience because everyone is forced to be at home. In addition to artists building their home bases, now they can go global if they want to. Versus the time, money, and energy to go on tour or be accepted in a cohort, fellowship or program, you can literally rewrite the narrative yourself in times of COVID through a virtual platform.  

CW: How do you create a community around art when you can’t gather? 

MORRIS: One of the things we work hard to do is be authentic in how we show up in times of COVID, whether virtual or not. I think what we’ve done organically is to check in with audiences and artists, either in small batches, one on one, or helping to promote their work, their projects. Just to continue to raise visibility that artists are continuing to create even if we can’t be together. To do that in a consistent way so people don’t lose faith that we will get back to a different normal.  

This idea of creating community is all about information sharing and resource sharing. The more we can find those events or projects happening across the city and beyond, it keeps communities connected and continues to create a sense of belonging and the opportunity – that you can get away from your 9-to-5 or being on a Zoom screen by just listening to the music or doing a do-it-yourself artmaking kit. You’ve just got to know what those things are. We’ve really worked hard to be a resource where we are sharing that information.  

I think more now in virtual sense, we’re allowed to be little more scrappy with our ideas and the audience can forgive us for that because it’s COVID. If it’s a team of artists doing a selfie video, which wasn’t accepted in the past, it’s accepted now. That level of scrappiness allowed for connection. Our communities are looking for that. Be authentic, be yourself, you don’t have to put on a face. If you’re going through a bad time, doing this work is not easy. It really has allowed folks to support and understand us holistically. 

CW: BAMS Fest was created to host a large music festival. Obviously, that’s not happening in 2020. How have you adapted to the pandemic? 

MORRIS: We buckled down and focused on how we should show up differently for black artists and communities of color at large. We spent the first half of the year assembling different brain trusts with external stakeholders to explore our thinking about solutions to problems – our digital footprint and infrastructure, our business model, our programming models and leadership succession planning.  

As a result, we are establishing a new model to support the 400 plus BIPOC [black, indigenous, and people of color] artists that we work with. We are inserting ourselves in public forums and conversations across sectors to highlight the important role and need to support the arts and culturecreative economy holistically. We have been able to produce virtual programming to give BIPOC artists the opportunity to still connect with their fans and a broader audience.  

CW: We’re in a moment of national reckoning about race. Are you surprised at the outcry that transpired over the killing of George Floyd? 

MORRIS: Yes, in terms of when I think about the days of Rodney King. It’s almost similar except the technology got better. The fact you had multiple perspectives filming the same thing just amplified this question of, have we moved on, and we haven’t. It’s literally changed the landscape of how we defined race, how we defined racism, how institutions and powerful people have to look at themselves nowadays. And it forced us to think about how we learn new habits and ways of treating people as human being or as a society perpetuate bad behavior that continues to divide us.  

CW: What barriers exist specifically for black artists within the general arts community?  

MORRIS: The biggest thing right now is a lack of access to capital and financial resources. The state only gives a certain percentage of money to support anything arts and culture, then it’s broken down by cities. Boston is completely underfunded compared to Portland or San Francisco or Atlanta. More now than in the last 10 years, there has been more of a focus on supporting black, indigenous and people of color artists, but we’re in a trend at this moment. What’s going to happen when the dust settles? Is that always going to be a priority as it should?  The whole system authentically has to change so that there’s consistency around the financial resources that we need to actually help artists grow their creative practice, stabilize their business, and build connection with their audience.  

Particularly for black artists trying to become an LLC, 501c3, or sole proprietorship, they get denied a lot of access to seed money to start a business because they’re only seen as something that’s supposed to fill a room, not something you should go see and invest in as you’d do with any business. It takes a lot of courage to create from scratch and to do that full time. There needs to be a wholehearted investment in that work as we do with any entrepreneur.  

With COVID, as desperate as people are to get outside and experience art and culture, you need artists to do that work for you, but we’re not investing in them. It’s because of our values and the value we place on arts and culture as so below the belt. It’s not considered high priority as we do with education or sports teams or health care. Arts and culture is just as important as any of those sectors because without it cities wouldn’t be able to survive. We don’t have enough brick and mortar performance spaces. Smaller venues are closing. Ones that are owned and operated by white people, there’s a lot of inherent bias about what kind of black artists and art forms walk through their doors. It tends to be the same artists, so those emerging never get the opportunity to be seen, heard, and valued by audiences.  

CW: Has the growing interest in systemic racism created a new audience for art produced by black individuals?  

MORRIS: I think there were already people who were doing this work, particularly photographers were documenting these things for years. Because there are folks individually and collectively who do not want to be labeled as racist, there are a lot of audiences out there who are now interested in understanding at least the basic things of how we got to this moment. Whether they want to work on themselves as individuals is a different story. At least there’s an acknowledgement that the powerful and privileged actually have to learn about this thing they created, and the decisions they make are going to determine how we’re going to look three, four, five, 10 years from now about this thing of systemic racism.  

CW: What role can artists play in helping the public understand the reality faced by black individuals?  

MORRIS: They have to stand their truth and they have to become more involved beyond their creation. It’s not just creating for the sake of creating. For us as an organization, we started getting to understanding advocacy and policymaking work, something we never would have done years ago. When we started to understand there was a huge fight at the State House about increasing the funding to support the arts and culture ecosystem, I realized that a lot of people who were advocating were not black, they were white, older women.  

Part of it is artists just don’t know what they don’t know, so [what’s important is] sharing information about what’s happening at the State House, with your city councilors, here are your Main Street offices in neighborhoods doing things to get more access to spaces, here are how restaurants try to incorporate artists. A lot of artists are not thinking that way. They’re here to create. To build legacy, to build movements, you have to be informed, educate yourself about things beyond the scope of work you do.  

The other thing we’re working on is creating a virtual space where there are hard conversations happening that address commonalities between artists and audiences of color. Artists go through just as much as any regular person, the only difference is that artist took a leap of faith to stand on their creativity to sustain them, versus the majority of us who work 9 to 5. They go through the same issues everyone else does in terms of satisfying human basic needs, paying their bills. It’s just they express their lived experiences through the art form we can all identify with.  

CW: Does racism and societal recognition of systemic racism have an impact on the art being produced in the black community?  

MORRIS: I think holistically what we have heard is at the end of the day there are so many stories that are not being told, and now’s the moment we have to tell them in very bold and ambitious ways that are loud and clear, that signal to people that something has to change. I think, overall, racism isn’t going away, but the barriers to equity do have to start coming down or moving.  

Mass. Cultural Council picks new leader

Mass. Cultural Council picks new leader

Choice is Michael Bobbitt, Watertown theater artistic director


THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR of a Watertown theater will in February become the next director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, after a unanimous vote Friday by the council’s governing body.

Michael Bobbitt, a director, choreographer, and playwright who came to the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown in 2019 after 12 years serving as artistic director at Maryland’s Adventure Theatre-MTC, will succeed longtime executive director Anita Walker, who retired in June.

Board member Troy Siebels, president and CEO of The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, said that while Bobbitt is relatively new to the Massachusetts theater scene, he has “made a real splash in that time by emerging quickly as a leader.”

“I think Michael speaks with passion and backs it up with know-how, and is a motivational leader,” Siebels said.

Bobbitt, a Cambridge resident, told the board during a virtual meeting that he was born and raised in Washington, DC, and began his arts career in the first grade when he played Hansel in the third act of a production of Hansel and Gretel. He went to college on a trumpet and voice scholarship before shifting his focus to theater and dance.

Bobbitt said he believes in “making sure that we hear from everyone, especially those who are most marginalized, in whatever decision we make.” He said he was driven to the role for the opportunity to support artists across Massachusetts and make a difference in the broader cultural community, potentially on a national or international level.

“Collaboration is a huge core value of mine, so I don’t know what we’ll do in the next two years , but I know that we’ll be very responsible in how we figure out where we go for the future,” Bobbitt said.

He’ll become the state’s most senior cultural official at a time when many cultural organizations and individual artists are facing financial challenges and struggling to stay viable while hampered by COVID-19 restrictions that preclude many performances, large fundraisers and other gatherings.

The fiscal 2020 budget that Gov. Charlie Baker signed last week funded the cultural council at about $18.2 million, equivalent to last year’s funding level.

Board member Ann Murphy asked Bobbitt about how he’ll approach working with the Legislature, referring to that as one of the executive director’s “trickiest jobs.”

“Well, I have a superpower named Bethann Steiner,” Bobbitt replied, referring to the council’s public affairs director. He said he worked often with state lawmakers in Maryland, including in an effort to establish a loan program to help cash-strapped organizations receive their state funding early.

Nina Fialkow, the council’s chair, said Bobbitt was offered a salary of $160,000, and that Walker had most recently earned a salary of $187,000. Fialkow said Bobbitt’s pay rate reflected “his experience and what he’ll be bringing to the council as the new executive director” as well as the cost of living in Massachusetts.

Deputy director David Slatery has been serving as acting executive director.

In a statement, Slatery described Bobbitt as “the visionary leader we need to guide the sector through this next chapter” as it confronts “massive economic devastation from COVID-19, while simultaneously engaging in challenging and important conversations to understand how to collectively promote equity and ensure access for all.”

Poll signals new approach at Museum of Science

Poll signals new approach at Museum of Science

Institution is getting involved in vaccination debate

THE BOSTON MUSEUM OF SCIENCE, known primarily as an interesting place to visit, took a step out into the community on Tuesday, releasing a poll surveying the attitudes of Massachusetts residents about a COVID-19 vaccine.

The poll contained some interesting findings – most Massachusetts residents want to be vaccinated and women of color are the most hesitant about getting the shot (or shots) – but it was also a clear signal that the museum is no longer waiting for people to walk in the door but reaching out into the community to showcase science in a new way.

Tim Ritchie, who took over as president of the museum just prior to the start of the pandemic, said the institution is still going to welcome guests with its exhibits, IMAX films, and lectures. But it’s also going to get out into the world and mix it up on issues where science plays an important role. The poll, a first for the museum, is a start in that direction.

“Every nonprofit organization, including the Museum of Science, has to answer one question – how will the world be different in positive way because we exist,” Ritchie said. “If we build public trust in science, the world will be better.”

The poll was designed to gauge where public attitudes are right now on what many perceive as one of the greatest scientific issues of our time. The museum on Monday plans to host a live streaming event to explore the findings and what they mean for the massive vaccination effort that is scheduled to begin as early as next week.

Ritchie wants to help move that debate forward. “We want to transition from being a community institution to being a community resource for problem solving,” he said. “This is the kind of thing we should be doing now and should have been doing all along.”

Tim Ritchie, president of the Museum of Science. (Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki Photography)

The poll, which was paid for by the museum in a partnership with the Massachusetts League of Community Centers, was conducted from November 18-25 in English and Spanish by the MassINC Polling Group.  The poll surveyed 1,180 Massachusetts residents, 250 black and 250 Latino residents.

According to the poll, 71 percent of those surveyed said they were very or somewhat likely to be vaccinated. Thirty-six percent said they planned to get the vaccine as soon as possible, 19 percent said they would get the shots after a few other people tried them, and 28 percent said they would wait until many other people are vaccinated first. Seven percent said they would not be vaccinated.

Men, according to the poll, are more eager to be vaccinated than women. Forty-four percent of white men said they would get vaccinated as soon as possible, compared to 36 percent of black men and 23 percent of Latino men. By contrast, 31 percent of white women, 21 percent of Latino women, and 19 percent of black women felt similarly.

Generally, the survey found that people were fairly well informed about the vaccine, although there were concerns about whether it has been adequately tested. A large number of people also said they completely or mostly trusted some of the officials and government institutions that are likely to play a role in the vaccine rollout.

Personal physicians had the trust of 80 percent of those surveyed, while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was trusted by 71 percent. Others on the list included the US Food and Drug Administration (64 percent), Dr. Anthony Fauci (62 percent), Massachusetts state government (53 percent), Joe Biden (48 percent), Gov. Charlie Baker (29 percent), and President Trump (20 percent).

The Museum of Science was completely or mostly trusted by 57 percent of those surveyed. “Just behind Dr. Fauci, that’s pretty good,” said Ritchie.

Elite artists face challenges on green cards

Elite artists face challenges on green cards

How do you prove ‘extraordinary ability’ during pandemic?

EVEN ELITE ARTISTS are having difficulty getting green cards for permanent residency in the United States.

The federal government is on pace to issue 32 percent fewer green cards this year to those with “extraordinary artistic ability.” Part of the downturn is the result of a slowdown in processing applications for the visas due to the pandemic. But applicants are also finding the pandemic is handicapping them in a different way – making it more difficult to prove they are as extraordinary as they claim.

Unless applicants have won a Grammy or an Emmy award, they have to demonstrate through press clippings, reviews, performing contracts, and box office receipts that they have risen to the top of their field and have won national or international acclaim.

But all of that is difficult to do in the midst of a pandemic that has shut down nearly all performance venues.

“How can the client show proof of future work when there is a prohibition over the last six months and possibly for the next year that the client will have work lined up? This is definitely a problem,” said Eileen Morrison, an immigration attorney who works with applicants for the extraordinary artist visas.

EunAe Lee, a world-class pianist from South Korea who is now based out of Boston on a temporary visa, finds herself in this situation. She came to New York on a student visa in 2004 and studied at Juilliard and Northwestern. Years of music education and performances culminated in her PhD in musical arts.

Lee, unlike most classical musicians, is able to sight-read, meaning she can perform an entire composition despite having only having a brief opportunity to scan the music. It’s a rare gift, which enables her to perform under difficult circumstances, with only minutes of advance preparation. She’s performed all over the US and in parts of Europe, but despite her past successes, she faces the real possibility of deportation because of her inability to do much performing recently.

EunAe Lee performs in concert. (Photo by Woo Hyun Chae)

“It’s been very challenging lately,” Lee said, adding that she had several shows and festivals for the summer and fall canceled at the beginning of the pandemic. “My dream is to remain in the US as a professional pianist and to continue to share contemporary classical works with audiences throughout the United States. Sometimes, I’ll find myself thinking about South Korea, but I also love living in the US, and I cherish the opportunities it provides me. There absolutely is no other country or place that compares to it.”

The fees for her EB-1 application will cost her over $4,200. It usually takes 10 months to a year to process the visa successfully in Boston.

Similar to Lee, Nima Janmohammadi came to the US from Iran to study at Boston’s New England Conservatory in 2011. He graduated in 2019 with a doctorate in musical arts in composition and a minor in music theory. He specializes in Persian music, which he’s been studying since the age of six, and plays the setar, a long-necked, four-stringed lute,

“It takes about 20 years to become a finished artist in Persian music,” he said. He studied with some of the most prominent masters of Persian music, including Hossein Alizadeh and the late Jalal Zolfonoun.

Janmohammadi currently teaches at the New England Conservatory in the theory, musicology, and contemporary improvisation departments. He has a special performer’s visa, but it does not allow him to leave the country, something he would like to do to visit family. So he applied, with the help of Morrison, for a visa for those with extraordinary artistic ability. He, too, worried about the pandemic’s impact on his application.

“I had lost so many concerts, master classes, and festivals,” he said. “The pandemic has been very difficult because it is impossible to perform in public.”

But he recently learned the part of his application claiming he is an artist of extraordinary ability was approved. He and Morrison are hopeful the rest of the application will be approved soon.

“Persian music is a beautiful art form and part of the cultural heritage of Iran. The world deserves to learn more about Persian music and its practitioners like Dr. Janmohammadi who can introduce others unfamiliar with the music and the instruments to something new and keep the cultural heritage alive,” said Morrison.

How we’re staying afloat at the New England Aquarium

How we’re staying afloat at the New England Aquarium

Innovation and fortitude are key for vital cultural institutions  

THIS YEAR’S rapid-fire turn of events is stunning. Minute to minute, day by day, we face a new reality. It’s no different leading one of Boston’s most popular and beloved cultural institutions in the year when we planned to celebrate our 50th anniversary. Then, it all turned upside down. 

To give you a sense of the impact on local institutions, I want to share how the entire New England Aquarium has been affected by the pandemic. To do that, I want to talk about how the Aquarium is more than the beloved institution people visit on Central Wharf in Boston, and why. I’ll start with the why. 

The ocean is particularly vulnerable right now because of climate change and how we, as humans, use it. 

Through our research and our rescue arms—the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and Animal Care Facility and the Animal Care Center and Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy—we are working for a vital and vibrant ocean for generations to come. Through animal care and research, education, and advocacy, we safeguard endangered and threatened species and their habitats, inspire people to take action to protect the blue planet and work to affect state and federal policies that do the same. The Aquarium itself is one piece of a larger conservation organization; it just happens to be the most well-known one. 

On Friday, March 13, we closed the doors of the Aquarium to the public. Although closed for 18 weeks, we had about 35 staff members caring daily for our 20,000 animals and the infrastructure that supports them. In many ways, during those months, it was business as usual for the animals—just much quieter. 

When the pandemic hit, our scientists were just getting back on the water after a winter hiatus and preparing for their summer field seasons. Summer plans and any ongoing fieldwork stopped suddenly, although our scientists continued their research and to publish. 

Eventually, by August, our right whale research team—which has spent every summer for the past 40 years conducting research in the Gulf of Maine—quarantined as a family unit and headed north. One of our shark researchers drove from Maine to Key West towing a camper in order to stay socially distanced from others. And, our aerial survey team got back up in the air donning full flight suits and face masks. In our Sea Turtle Hospital, rehabilitation work continued for the handful of sea turtles rescued from the shores of Cape Cod in late fall and early winter still healing from bouts of hypothermia and related illnesses. (We had already successfully rehabilitated and released nearly 200 turtles.) By July, we quietly released the remaining turtles on uncrowded beaches at sunrise into the warm waters off the Cape. In years past, such releases were accompanied by great fanfare with cheering crowds. 

When we closed, we pivoted quickly to using social media to tell the stories about the ongoing care in the Aquarium, as well as our research and rescue work. Every weekday at 11 a.m., we broadcast “Virtual Visits.” Aquarists and scientists—formerly used to advancing their work quietly behind the scenes—suddenly became the stars of our Facebook page. We had our share of technical difficulties, but we continued educating and inspiring people with the wonders of the ocean online. Viewership skyrocketed. Countless families, teachers, and librarians told us how they were relying on our virtual visits to supplement at home learning. 

As time passed, we got the go-ahead to reopen on July 16, and did so at only 15 percent of building capacity. That makes for a wonderful Aquarium experience but not a sustainable business model. 

Still, we created one-way paths, implemented timed ticketing, and trained our staff on how to enforce mask wearing and social distancing guidelines among guests. We are delighted that people are comfortable and eager to come visit, and yet, like our peers, we missed late summer and early fall tourism. We see fewer guests during the week now that school is in session but are fortunate for sustained interest on weekends. We are losing money every month, even with our doors open. 

Most acutely, the pandemic has affected us financially. Like our counterparts at many zoos and aquariums, we rely on ticket sales and earned income, such as events, for most of our revenue—80 percent in our case. During our five-month closure, we lost $16 million in revenue. We had to make painful reductions and let go of valued, longtime staff members. We have had to become more innovative and agile, doing more with less. We started the Mission Forward Fund to raise critical dollars. About $3.8 million has been raised to date. 

Like the Children’s Museum and the Museum of Science, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art, we are part of the cultural fabric of this city. Along with the Greenway, the Harbor Walk, Christopher Columbus Park, and the North End, we help make the downtown waterfront welcoming and inclusive and vibrant. 

Our doors are open, our research continues, we’re preparing for another sea turtle rescue season, and we’re developing more and different virtual programming to serve the needs of individuals and families, as well as of teachers and schools. We are determined to make it to the other side of this pandemic because our blue planet, our city, and our region needs us. 

Vikki Spruill is president and CEO of the New England Aquarium. She shared these remarks as part of the October 5 webinar “A Better City Conversations: Cultural Institutions” alongside leaders of the Boston Children’s Museum and the Museum of Science. 

Historic homes struggle to reopen in COVID-compliant way

Historic homes struggle to reopen in COVID-compliant way

With small spaces and little ventilation, many sites remain closed

THE YEAR 2020 was shaping up to be a banner year for the Orchard House in Concord, the home where Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote the classic book Little Women.

On Christmas 2019, the Greta Gerwig film adaptation of Little Women was released, set in a replica of Orchard House. By February, visits to the Orchard House were up 350 percent from the prior year and staff were hiring and training new guides and buying extra store merchandise.

Then in March, COVID-19 hit. Orchard House shut down, and many of the staff were unemployed. By October, despite state guidelines allowing cultural facilities to reopen, Orchard House still had not found a way to reopen safely. “We’re definitely pouring money out and bringing in almost nothing,” said Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House.

As museums begin to reopen, albeit with modifications and capacity limits, the many historic homes sprinkled throughout Massachusetts are facing unique challenges. While a small number of these sites have reopened, the vast majority are still shut tight – some with plans to remain closed until next spring. Historic homes make up around 55 percent of New England museums, and many of the features that make these homes unique – original artifacts and older spaces – also make it nearly impossible to make them COVID-compliant.

“The historic home community is struggling a lot more than the museums to be able to get open,” said Michael Busack, who manages the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard and the Old Manse in Concord, both owned by the Trustees of Reservations. While the Fruitlands has opened some of its galleries, the Old Manse – a house once lived in by writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne — remains closed until spring.

“The difficulty with a historic home is its tight spaces and historic material, so sanitizing, air flow, those types of things are really big concerns,” Busack said.

At Orchard House, for example, the rooms are small, and tours must be guided to ensure the safety of the authentic items. Some rooms are small enough that under state capacity guidelines, only one person can enter at a time. Because of the house’s layout, there is no easy way to skip these rooms.

Turnquist said even if one person could be taken through at a time, hiring guides for personal tours is not a financially viable way to run a business. The organization is buying an online ticketing system and hopes to reopen in some way if virus transmission rates stay low. But, Turnquist said, “We’re spending thousands of dollars just to keep the property safe. The only thing worse would be to have a reopening plan where we lose even more money.”

The challenges are different depending on the space. At Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum that recreates a 19th century village, there are no guided tours, and guests are encouraged to walk in and out of buildings.

There were around 35 buildings open to visitors pre-pandemic. When the village reopened in July, the costumed historical reenactors moved entirely outdoors. Only in October, as the weather turns cold, are staff slowly reopening indoor spaces, with plans to open around 20 buildings.

At Old Sturbridge Village, much of the living history museum was moved outside due to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village)

Derek Heidemann, coordinator of crafts and assistant director of interpretation, said the shoemaker’s shop illustrates the challenges of reopening. The shop is so small – a 10-by-12-foot room with a chimney — that only a single staff member can fit inside under social distancing guidelines. The current plan is to have only the shoemaker inside and let visitors talk to the shoemaker through open windows.

Other buildings are bigger but lack a one-way path. When a building has a different entrance and exit, staff are needed at each door to monitor traffic flow, but those staff are then too busy counting visitors to answer questions.

Heidemann said the village has been trying to figure out how to maintain the visitor experience while keeping staff and visitors safe. “One thing we struggled with through the reopening is we don’t want interpreters and educators to be dealing with policing all the time,” he said.

Historic New England, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving historic heritage sites, owns 37 historic properties across New England, and only six have reopened their buildings, including the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, Gropius House in Lincoln, and the Eustis Estate in Milton.

Peter Gittleman, team leader for visitor experience at Historic New England, said there is visitor interest – tours are regularly selling out in advance. But opening more properties or expanding the currently reduced hours was too complicated given the realities of COVID.

To open, the organization cut tour sizes from between 8 and 18 visitors down to four to six visitors. Rooms without ventilation were closed. Routes were shifted to make sure two tours never crossed paths. One home that previously allowed self-guided tours now requires a guide in order to control capacity. The organization switched from door ticket sales to online pre-purchasing. Guides went through rigorous training covering everything from how frequently to clean bathrooms to how to address a customer who refuses to wear a mask to how a customer with a guide dog affects group size.

“Unlike larger art museums, we have the ability to be more nimble because we’re a smaller operation,” Gittleman said. “For us to say we’ll open Eustis Estate but not Otis House…we had a lot of choices there. We deliberately chose houses we thought would benefit the public the most and where we could safely conduct guided tours.”

The house on Codman Estate in Lincoln remained closed due to COVID-19 on October 18, 2020. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

Keeping a house closed has its own dangers. In addition to the obvious loss of revenue, having people walk through a historic home keeps the air flowing, keeps mice at bay, and ensures problems are noticed quickly, said Christie Jackson, senior curator with the Trustees of Reservations. “When a house gets closed up, this living entity that likes to have air circulating and people and movement suddenly is put into this sort of static state, and that’s when you do see things like mold blooms, you see problems with pests, problems with moths,” Jackson said. “When you go into this lockdown phase for these houses, you actually need to go in more and really keep an eye on things because problems can get bad quickly.”

Dan Yaeger, executive director of the New England Museum Association, said its monthly survey of 120 museums found that in August, attendance was down 80 percent compared to the prior year. He said institutions that rely heavily on tourism have been more affected than those with local visitors. Historic homes have benefited from an increase in philanthropic donations and from relaxed grant guidelines, which let grants be used for operating expenses.

The Paul Revere House in Boston, for example, relies heavily on Freedom Trail visitors – of which there are few. Executive director Nina Zannieri said on an average day, visitation is down 80 percent from normal. Accounting for the home’s decision to reduce the days and hours it is open, it is attracting just 10 percent of the visitors it would in a normal year. Income is down by $1 million, due to a drop in admissions, shop sales, and school tours. The house has stayed afloat through a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, grants, and fundraising, but Zannieri predicted “it’s going to be two pretty tough years.”

The organizations that have been most successful have figured out how to use their homes and grounds creatively.

Curators at the Crane Estate in Ipswich developed a light show, where patrons could sit outside and watch silhouettes in the mansion window while hearing the story of what weekend visitors to the estate would have experienced in the 1930s and 1940s.

Gore Place, a 50-acre country estate, farm, and mansion in Waltham, conducted its traditional plant sale fundraiser online with curbside pickup. Its “Frightful Friday” events involving the telling of spooky ghost stories moved from inside the mansion to outside in a tent. While indoor mansion tours are not happening, Gore Place started offering grounds tours. It has held stargazing evenings with an astronomer, and is planning a Sunday foraging walk with an urban foraging expert who will talk about what local plants are edible.

“We really haven’t been closed in the sense that we’ve been offering different programs since April,” said Thom Roach, director of interpretation and programs for Gore Place. He said programs like a recent Jane Austin talk and garden party actually drew more attendees than usual. “There’s much less competition on a beautiful fall afternoon when everyone else isn’t doing something as well,” he said.

Historic New England started hosting “micro-weddings,” weddings with up to 20 people at its sites, for a cost of $500. Gittleman said organizers hoped to attract 10 weddings, but 30 have been held.

Historic New England had to cancel its annual sheep shearing festival in Newbury, which attracts a few hundred people. Instead, it posted a livestream online of someone shearing a sheep and asked for donations. “We made more money than we would have at the event itself and far more people watched it,” Gittleman said.

Castle Rock’s impact called significant

Castle Rock’s impact called significant

Groups push for repeal of film tax credit sunset date

A STUDY BILLED as the first of its kind indicates the initial season of Hulu’s Castle Rock television series received a projected $14.6 million in film tax credits from the state and generated $69 million of total economic output in Massachusetts – a return of $4.73 for every dollar of tax credit.

The study is unique in that Warner Bros. Television, the producer of the series, shared inside data on production spending with Industrial Economics of Cambridge, which was hired by groups pushing for the elimination of a 2022 sunset date for the film tax credit.

The data indicate a good chunk of the production spending paid to people and vendors outside the state actually was spent inside Massachusetts, increasing the rate of return on the tax credits issued for the production.

The conclusions in the report, which focus on a single year-long production, run  counter to industry-widereports done years ago by the Massachusetts Revenue Department suggesting more than half of the spending spawned by film tax credits flowed out of state. Castle Rock was the first series to be filmed in Massachusetts in more than 25 years, and its economic impact in Massachusetts is likely larger than movies and other productions, which have much shorter film shoots. Castle Rock operated out of New England Studios in Devens.

The Massachusetts film tax credit was launched in 2006 and is scheduled to sunset on December 31, 2022. It offers anyone shooting films, TV shows, or commercials in Massachusetts a credit equal to roughly 25 percent of whatever they spend. The credits are extremely attractive because they can be converted into cash by either selling them back to the state at 90 percent of their face value or by selling them to a corporation or individual with a large tax liability in Massachusetts.

According to the Industrial Economics report, the first season of Castle Rock filmed in Massachusetts from March 2017 to February 2018, spending $58 million and receiving $14.6 million in tax credits. Of the $58 million, the report says, $30 million went to addresses inside Massachusetts and $28 million to addresses outside the state. Based on a review of the $28 million spent outside the state, the study concludes that only $16.5 million was spent outside the state and $11.5 million was actually spent inside the state, bringing the total in-state spending to $41.5 million.

The higher in-state spending number is based on estimates of what individuals from outside Massachusetts working on the series would have spent inside the state while working here. The analysis also says many non-personnel expenditures made to addresses outside the state actually were made to in-state vendors. The report said most of those payments were made to local outlets of national retail chains and car rental companies, which had out-of-state addresses.

Using economic multipliers, the Industrial Economics report estimated the $58 spent on Castle Rock yielded a total economic impact of $69 million. The report said 1,026 full-time jobs were created by the production and spending occurred in 210 cities and towns across the state.

At a Zoom press conference, Chris O’Donnell, business manager of IATSE Local 481, the union representing technicians and craftspeople on film sets, said TV and movie productions plan years in advance, and may shy away from Massachusetts if the sunset date on the film tax credit is not removed. Pointing to a map showing communities in color where Castle Rock spent money, O’Donnell painted a grim picture if the sunset date is not eliminated.

“If we don’t eliminate the sunset soon, this map is going to start looking more and more white with less and less color,” he said. “Productions and producers of this content need certainty. Having this program end in two years creates more uncertainty.”

Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett, who supports the tax credit, said the data indicate large numbers of Massachusetts residents are benefitting from the program. He said the film tax credit is not supporting big-name actors such as Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp.

“The narrative that we’ve heard on the film tax credit is that it benefits the Hollywood elite. That’s BS,” he said.

The Industrial Economics study did not examine how the tax credit benefitted stars and directors from out of state. It only concluded that $16.5 million, or 28 percent, of the $58 million spent on Castle Rock went out of state.