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ARTS ON THE EDGE

Arts were ‘the catalyst’ for economic renewal in the Berkshires. What now with a summer of closures and cancellations?

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art director Joseph Thompson sits in the museum's empty Hunter Center for the Performing Arts.
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art director Joseph Thompson sits in the museum's empty Hunter Center for the Performing Arts.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

NORTH ADAMS — On a recent bright day, Melahat Karakaya walked the empty hallways of the Porches Inn in North Adams, thinking of what should have been. Spring is always the season for fresh starts, and in the Berkshires more than most. Spring is boom time here: The region’s many museums host a full slate of openings and events, while a string of festivals gets underway at nearby theater and music venues.

Spring also means a starting gun for the summer onslaught, when hundreds of thousands of visitors descend upon Western Massachusetts. But this year, all is silent, outside and in.

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“Everyone has canceled everything," said Karakaya, the inn’s general manager. "They don’t want to take a risk, because the immediate future is so unclear.”

As the coronavirus thunders its way across the planet, through big cities and small communities alike, an unearthly stillness has become the unnerving new normal. But in the grinding days and weeks since social distancing — our only defense — started choking nearly every aspect of public life, something more has been revealed about the Berkshires regional economy: It is especially vulnerable.

The 21st century has been a time of incremental rebuilding here. The region has picked up and dusted off from the collapse of its 19th- and 20th-century industrial economy, forging a new path alongside cultural organizations, new and old alike, to make Western Massachusetts a global arts destination. Over time, restaurants, bars, and hotels blossomed to serve growing numbers of tourists drawn by the area’s riches. And while dubious locals and longtimers had their doubts, recent numbers suggest the transition was thriving.

According to 1Berkshire, the local regional economic development agency, the visitor economy — hotel stays, restaurant meals — accounted for $1.2 billion in economic activity in Berkshire County in 2017, well more than the $917 million brought by manufacturing. Jonathan Butler, 1Berkshire’s CEO, said as many as 8,000 jobs were either directly or indirectly tied to tourism last year, with the industry’s economic footprint growing by 35 percent in the last decade alone.

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“We’re very much a new economy, in the last 20 years or so,” Butler said. “More recently we’ve been able to diversify — the creative economy, innovation, even some new manufacturing. But it’s without any shred of doubt that the visitor economy is the backbone of our economy, and that it’s critical to our economic health.

"That’s why this is so scary.”

The region is replete with cultural venues, from the Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow campuses to the Clark Art Institute. But perhaps none is more emblematic of the area’s reinvention than the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Even the site of it — the 16-acre former Sprague Electric Company in North Adams, which closed its doors in 1985 — has the air of resurrection. With 250,000 square feet of gallery space, Mass MoCA, as the museum is called, has the biggest footprint of any contemporary art museum in the US.

But Mass MoCA is now also a weighty symbol of economic fragility in the coronavirus era. “When you’re in the gathering business, like we are,” said Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson, “this hurts.” The museum has been shuttered since March 16, as part of the global effort to slow the spread of the disease. As the pandemic drags on, though, the economic fallout becomes increasingly alarming.

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The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams has been closed since March 16.
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams has been closed since March 16.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Eight days after closing the museum’s doors, Thompson sent a jarring e-mail to the museum’s members. He began by saying that, amid a sea of uncertainty, one thing was distressingly clear: The museum’s “earned revenue” — ticket sales, largely — had been “wiped out overnight.” That was hardly surprising, given the circumstances. What did surprise was his explanation that earned revenue accounted for 70 percent of the museum’s annual budget, all of it gone in a flash.

Mass MoCA is hardly alone in such dire circumstances. In recent weeks, other museums in the region including the Hancock Shaker Village sent pleas for financial support; and furloughs arrived for employees at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge on Friday. Meanwhile, the cancellations keep stacking up. Jacob’s Pillow, the Berkshires-bred dance festival, canceled the entire 88th summer season late last month. Last week, the Williamstown Theatre Festival canceled its own summer season. As for the monthslong Tanglewood season, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is expected to make an announcement in mid-May.

Deep layoffs soon followed at Mass MoCA — 120 out of a staff of 165 — as well as a raft of scrapped events and postponements. “Normally, at this time of year, we’re taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars for ticketed events throughout the summer,” Thompson said while on-site at the museum last week, standing amidst 26 buildings of unpeopled gallery space. “Right now, we’re sending hundreds of thousands of dollars back.”

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Museums, especially large ones, have a raft of unique, and expensive, concerns. For starters, you can’t simply lock the door and walk away from a facility filled with millions of dollars worth of art. And no museum will weather this storm without some damage to the bottom line.

Even so, there are degrees. Museums are often generations old, armored against financial disaster by decades’ worth of philanthropy and the foundations such largesse can build. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which turned 150 this year, held assets in its endowment valued at nearly $644 million, according to tax filings for the fiscal year ending in June 2018 (the most recent available). Down the road from MASS MoCA is the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, a jewel box of a museum surrounded by lush forest and rolling hills. Established by wealthy patrons in 1955, the Clark holds an endowment of $107 million, according to its most recent tax filings. And earned revenue accounted for just under 7 percent of total income during that same period, according to the Clark’s most recent annual report.

Mass MoCA, still an infant among its peers, is without deep historical resources to fund the strenuous upkeep of its sprawling historic campus. The museum is accustomed to operating on a tightrope. When it opened in 1999, “the money we took in one week was the money we used to pay the bills the next week,” Thompson said. “We had no working capital, no endowment, and no line of credit. As you can imagine, I spent a lot of time with a tin cup in my hand.”

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That led to a pioneering museum finance model that emphasized live events such as concerts and music festivals to help feed the fiscally demanding but less lucrative world of art exhibitions. Signature events including LOUD weekend in August and FreshGrass in September showcase dozens of acts and draw thousands of people. (Neither event has been canceled yet; Thompson said the organization was making decisions about six weeks out as the crisis progressed.)

For many years, that event-based revenue stream was enough. By 2007, Mass MoCA started raising money for an endowment of its own. (Timing, Thompson joked, is everything; the endowment wasn’t established in time to take a hit from the 2008 financial crisis). As of mid-March, he said, the endowment was still modest at $21.25 million, a little less than double the museum’s annual operating budget of $12.5 million. (A more-established institution typically holds 10 to 15 times its annual budget in its endowment.) But last week, with the crisis mounting as it announced layoffs, the museum dipped into its endowment to cover health care costs for staff, whether laid off or not, through the end of July.

Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson walks through one of the complex's empty buildings.
Mass MoCA director Joseph Thompson walks through one of the complex's empty buildings.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

For a region whose economy was rebuilt on the most hopeful of things — a social economy, based on the gathering of people — the level of cruelty feels almost farcical. Mass MoCA sees around 300,000 annual visitors, which it says generates about $52 million every year to the local economy.

“We were founded to attract large numbers of people to North Adams around acts of creativity, and we’ve done it quite successfully,” Thompson said. “So this, well, it’s quite the punch in the gut.”

The threat to the larger Berkshires economy has raised the alarm on Beacon Hill as well. State Representative John Barrett, a Democrat representing North Adams and Williamstown, filed a joint bill on April 8 with his south Berkshires House colleague Smitty Pignatelli to divert emergency funds to the region’s nonprofit cultural institutions. “We need to get this on the radar screen — that arts and culture are vital to the economic health of this region,” he said. “It’s been the catalyst there for 20 years. What happens if it goes away?”

For Barrett, it’s personal. In the 1990s, he was the mayor of North Adams as Thompson led a small consortium of believers to reclaim the Sprague complex as a contemporary art museum. “It took a long time for some people to see that this wasn’t an elite vanity project, that it was an economic development project,” Barrett said. “I was the mayor in North Adams when we lost Sprague Electric, and it took us 25, 30 years to come back from that. And here we are again.”

For Tom Bernard, the current mayor of North Adams, the irony of the moment is powerful indeed. Growing up in North Adams, he remembered the shift changes at Sprague, the constant flow of workers into a lively downtown. And he remembers when the bottom dropped out, the shuttered shops and empty hulks of brick.

As Bernard noted, arts organizations brought more than restaurants and hotels to the region. They’ve brought a new way of thinking. “For a generation of people here, I think, maybe entrepreneurship wasn’t in the cards because the economy we inherited didn’t create a lot of space for ownership and creativity,” he said. “In this generation, that’s really changed. You can’t say that’s because of one institution, or even a group of institutions. But together they create a feeling — that things are possible again.”

Case in point: On Route 2 between North Adams and Williamstown, the old Norad Mill stood vacant for decades until an investor repurposed it and filled it with more than 50 small businesses, some of which relocated from as far away as California. Nearby, Greylock Works, a campus of low-slung factory buildings that once housed a cotton-spinning mill, reopened this year with swaths of the massive complex retrofitted as an event space, a culinary lab, a co-working space, and a craft distillery. Not far away, in Pittsfield, the Berkshire Innovation Center opened earlier this year; it acts as an incubator for STEM and life-sciences businesses in the region.

Through it all, the Berkshires cultural economy was the grand convener — the reason to gather, to linger, even to stay. In North Adams, Mass MoCA has been vital enough that grand plans for the city now include even more museums — a model train museum, for one, and a museum of architecture.

But with convening now a mortal threat, what happens to the economy built around it? That’s something Thompson grapples with daily. This won’t last forever, though the pain will be felt a long time. What might also linger, he hopes, is the extreme clarity of an economic reinvention long scoffed at, but in its sudden absence, now undeniable.

“Those of us whose job is to gather people together around art and culture have long endured sidelong glances from steely-eyed bankers, who look askance at the service sector economy,” Thompson said. “That’s now over, and for good.”


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.