A week ago, there was no shortage of ways to spend a night on the town in Boston, a city with more arts and cultural organizations per capita than even New York City (according to a 2016 report by the Boston Foundation). But as the number of Covid-19 cases ticked upward, entertainment options fell like dominoes: Museum of Fine Arts. Boston Symphony Orchestra. Boston Children’s Museum. New England Aquarium. These are just a few of the organizations that canceled events or shuttered facilities this week.
Universities play an outsize role in the Boston arts scene — and those organizations moved aggressively early in the week, causing the first wave of cancellations by restricting campus venues. Celebrity Series of Boston was one of the first to shift or scrap concerts with roots singer (and Newton native) Aoife O’Donovan and radio personality/bluegrass artist Chris Thile, both originally scheduled for Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. “It’s clearly a situation that none of us have been through before,” said Celebrity Series president and CEO Gary Dunning in a phone interview Tuesday. “There’s a sustained impact over time on a broad swath of the population and city. How do you plan for that?”
Another nonprofit presenter, Global Arts Live, took a hit Wednesday when its March 20 event featuring composer Terry Riley was scratched due to the Sanders closure. By Thursday, Global Arts Live had canceled all events for the next 30 days, including its two-week Flamenco Festival. Harvard’s ART theater also canceled a slate of March and April events, including the organization’s 2020 gala.
New England Conservatory is home to several venues including Jordan Hall, a hub for respected classical groups. On Monday, the school announced online that all performances at the school’s facilities would be open only to NEC students, faculty, and staff until further notice. That put off public concerts by Boston Baroque and A Far Cry.
Outside of the university realm, the city’s museums initially hoped to remain open while avoiding parties. But everything changed Thursday when a joint statement announced temporary shutdowns at the Museum of Fine Arts, Institute of Contemporary Art, Harvard Art Museums, and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. More closures were announced Thursday by Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Ballet, Boston Lyric Opera, Boston Children’s Museum, New England Aquarium, the Museum of Science, and the Boch Center. Meanwhile, the country’s most important cultural institutions temporarily called it quits: the Met Opera, the Metropolitan Museum. Even Broadway shows were canceled following a New York state ban on large gatherings.
In statements and interviews, Boston’s nonprofit arts leaders cited concerns for the well-being of artists, patrons, and employees. But groups were also braced for the worst when it came to another measure of health: organizational finances. “The safety of our artists and our audiences have always been top of mind, but we’ll clearly have to make blatant appeals for support," said Dunning, who surmised that arts groups could lose 10 to 15 percent of their annual operating budget because of cancellations and sunk costs, forcing them to dip into reserve funds, slow their growth, or borrow money. "I hope that people, individuals, and foundations realize that the impact on arts organizations is just as severe as it is anywhere else.”
The effect is sure to be severe for Boston’s community of freelance artists who depend on public events for their livelihood. Boston-based singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell said that a major university in the Northeast booked his duo Tzvey Brider (Two Brothers) a year ago, only to have the spring concert postponed indefinitely. Russell, a classically trained bass who now works at the intersections of Jewish and Black music, explained that most of his performances fall outside the Greater Boston area; next month he has pending gigs in Texas and New York.
“I’m just in a state of unknowing," Russell said by phone this week. "I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I am actually worried about my personal economy, because I think that the specter of the virus, combined with a lack of information, and what feels like a lack of effective response, means that this whole thing could be going on much longer than we think.”