Mass Reboot: The arts sector

The Boch Center and the Dorchester Art Project are arts organizations from very different worlds, but both were hit hard by COVID and are now struggling to find their way back to some sense of normalcy post-pandemic. 

The Boch Center, with its massive Wang Theater the setting for major touring theater productions visiting Boston, shut down in March 2020, laid off most of its employees, and won’t be reopening until October. “It was the most excruciating, painful part of my career,” said Josiah Spaulding Jr., the president and CEO of the Boch Center.

The Dorchester Art Project, a Fields Corner performance and exhibition space, was designated Boston’s best intimate live music venue in 2019. But intimate was the last thing on anyone’s mind when COVID arrived. “It really just all came to a crashing halt,” said Emma Leavitt, director of communications and public art projects. 

Spaulding and Leavitt are featured in Mass Reboot, a production of the MassINC Polling Group presented by The Codcast, which examines in the first of 10 episodes how the arts world has been affected by COVID and its prospects going forward. 

Michael Bobbitt, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, said the Massachusetts arts and cultural sector lost at least $588 million in revenue during the pandemic and saw employment drop from 71,000 to 30,000. He calls it a cultural depression. 

The Boch Center and the Dorchester Art Project both had difficulty tapping into government aid programs and have had to rely largely on private donations to survive. Leavitt said COVID showed how unstable the creative economy is and how vulnerable artists and gig workers are. “There was a lot of hopelessness and confusion,” she said.

Both organizations are eager to reopen, but they are moving cautiously. “We weren’t pushing to open as soon as we can or take as much space as we need,” said Leavitt. “We were just really cautious about it. We’re still wearing masks inside, kind of playing it by ear.” 

A poll conducted by the MassINC Polling Group in late May indicated only 44 percent of state residents would feel safe seeing a show in a crowded theater. The poll found older people felt less safe returning to crowded venues. 

Spaulding is hoping attitudes shift by the time the Boch Center reopens in October – about 20 months after it shut down. “It’s tough, but we’ve survived,” he said.

BRUCE MOHL

FROM COMMONWEALTH

How fast should we spend excess cash? There’s an unusually large amount of free cash floating around Beacon Hill — $5 billion in unrestricted federal aid and $4 billion in surplus tax revenue — and the stage is being set for a fight over who will control all that money and how it will be spent. The Legislature has indicated it wants to take its time in deciding how the money should be spent, but Gov. Charlie Baker wants to move quickly to help spur on the economy and return a big chunk to taxpayers. Here’s what you need to know.

— The state in the past has exempted most purchases from the state’s sales tax for a weekend in August, but Baker is proposing an expansion of the sales tax holiday to the entire months of August and September. The governor estimates his proposal would cost the state $900 million, or roughly a quarter of the surplus tax revenue on hand. Read more.

— Baker seems eager to spend the state’s excess cash. He proposed using $10 million in federal relief funding as prize money for a lottery game that would be free to play for anyone who is fully vaccinated. He pitched a spending plan for more than half of the $5 billion in federal aid. And now the extended sales tax holiday. Read more.

— Legislative leaders went along with the governor’s lottery game proposal. But it looks like they want to gather public input before deciding what to do with the rest of the surplus funds. The House rejected his call for a quick spend of the federal aid dollars, and the Senate is expected to follow suit. Legislative leaders haven’t said where they stand on the governor’s extended sales tax holiday yet, but early reaction on Beacon Hill was negative, with senators calling it a political gimmick.

— Budget analysts aren’t fans of the extended sales tax holiday. Eileen McAnneny of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said there are better uses for the funds. Evan Horowitz of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University cautions that pumping dollars into the economy now could amplify existing supply bottlenecks and be counterproductive.

OPINION

Mass. casinos need help: Paul DeBole says casino slot revenues are rising in Massachusetts, but the numbers are misleading. Once adjusted to allow comparisons among casinos, DeBole says Massachusetts gaming facilities are lagging their counterparts in Connecticut. He says it may be time for the Legislature to ease competitive restrictions on the Bay State casinos. Read more.

COVID education loss: Schools can’t play catchup on the education loss from COVID with remediation programs, says Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, executive director of the Ivy League School in Brookline. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

A controversial bill that would let immigrants without legal status obtain Massachusetts driver’s licenses is back under consideration on Beacon Hill. (Salem News)

The editorial board of the North of Boston Media Group says the time is now to reopen the State House to the public. 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

The Boston City Council signaled its unhappiness with Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s proposed budget, another sign of tension between Janey, a Roxbury district city councilor who became acting mayor by virtue of her role as council president, and her one-time colleagues. (Boston Globe

The Boston Herald obtains public records from the city of text exchanges among Boston School Committee members that confirms earlier reports, based on leaked copies of the messages, of two members disparaging white West Roxbury residents. 

The former Rockport fire chief sues the town for wrongful termination, revealing new allegations against Rockport officials. (Gloucester Daily Times)

After Mikayla Miller’s death, the overwhelmingly white town of Hopkinton reckons with issues of race and racism. (Telegram & Gazette)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

The state’s second largest health insurer is threatening to not cover Biogen’s new Alzheimer’s drug unless the Cambridge-based company dramatically cuts its price. (Boston Globe)

Hospitals are facing a critical shortage of blood donations. (Gloucester Daily Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

President Biden nominates House Majority Leader and Easton state Rep. Claire Cronin to become the next US ambassador to Ireland. (MassLive)

ELECTIONS

Could either Maya Wiley or Kathryn Garcia, who finished second and third in the first round of counting to Eric Adams in New York City’s Democratic primary for mayor, overtake the Brooklyn borough president as the ranked-choice voting process plays out? The consensus: It’s possible, but unlikely. (New York Times

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

North Carolina wins a big Apple research campus with the promise of 3,000 jobs with an average salary of $187,000. To land the economic prize, the state paid out more in financial incentives than it ever has in the past. (Raleigh News & Observer)

EDUCATION

MassLive looks at how Mount Greylock became one of nine school districts last year to have a 100 percent graduation rate. 

US Sen. Elizabeth Warren blocks President Biden’s nominee to lead higher education policy until the administration agrees to changes to the federal student loan program. (MassLive)