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ARTS ON THE EDGE

‘This wasn’t a downward trend. This was a cliff.’ Layoffs, furloughs hit the Massachusetts arts sector

The Museum of Fine Arts was one of the state's first cultural institutions to announce staff cuts.
The Museum of Fine Arts was one of the state's first cultural institutions to announce staff cuts.Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

More than a quarter billion dollars in lost revenue. More than 15,000 jobs impacted. And it’s only been one month.

With concert halls, museums, zoos, and other cultural venues shuttered indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Massachusetts arts organizations are braced for a very lean and long haul — and making the kind of tough workforce choices that seemed unimaginable a mere six weeks ago.

“The picture keeps getting worse and worse,” said Anita Walker, executive director of Mass Cultural Council, the state’s funding agency for the arts.

By all accounts, the arts sector is a huge employer in the state of Massachusetts. According to a 2019 report by the ArtsBoston advocacy organization, cultural organizations accounted for 30,000 jobs in Greater Boston alone. The Mass Cultural Council’s 2020 report to the state Legislature tallied 71,000 full-time nonprofit arts jobs. Of the nearly 700 nonprofit cultural organizations that participated in two statewide surveys conducted by Mass Cultural Council in the past month, just over half said they will lay off, furlough, or reduce hours for employees — affecting at least 15,381 positions.

Several major institutions have already announced furloughs, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Ballet, and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. North Adams’s Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art laid off 120 of its 165 employees, with remaining staff taking pay reductions of 18 to 28 percent. The museum has pledged to cover laid-off personnel’s health care through July by reaching into its endowment.

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In an e-mail, museum spokeswoman Jodi Joseph wrote that MASS MoCA expected to repost most of those positions when possible, with hopes that laid off workers would apply. “We know for certain that [MASS MoCA] will re-open, and we know with equal certainty that our regional cultural ecosystem and marketplace will be changed."

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MASS MoCA laid off 120 of its 165 employees.
MASS MoCA laid off 120 of its 165 employees.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Financial planning can be a Herculean task for arts organizations now that revenue has ground to a halt: Ticket sales have flatlined. Donors are looking cautiously at their checkbooks as an economic recession brews — or maybe even a depression. Endowments and other invested assets are also subject to the trends of the marketplace. Nonprofits that participated in the Mass Cultural Council surveys — including art and science museums, performing arts groups, historic houses, aquariums, and zoos — reported more than $264 million in lost revenue since the pandemic hit in March, and more than $6.5 million in documented unemployment liability.

“We’ve certainly gone through recessions … but organizations have an opportunity to tighten their belt, or cut back on programming, or reduce overhead in some way, shape, or form, to meet an anticipated downward trend in the economy,” Walker said. “This wasn’t a downward trend. This was a cliff. They had their summer seasons planned, concerts ready to go. They had plays mounted, they had classes signed up for — and the next day the lights were off.”

Uncertainty looms, but one fact has become clear: the forgivable loans offered by the Paycheck Protection Program under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, do not meet the needs of large nonprofit institutions.

“We employ a lot of people, we serve large audiences, and it excludes us from one of the mechanisms we have to get through this period and keep our staff together,” said Museum of Fine Arts director Matthew Teitelbaum. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) covers just eight weeks of payroll for up to 500 employees. An MFA spokesperson reported that 301 of its 550 permanent employees have been furloughed. Assignments were terminated for an additional 183 temporary workers.

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Teitelbaum, who took a 30 percent salary cut during this period, was one of six Boston-area leaders to co-sign an April 10 letter to US senators and representatives from Massachusetts requesting more relief for nonprofit institutions in the CARES Act, as well as an extension of the PPP provisions through December 2020. The letter also moved that nonprofits with greater than 500 employees be made eligible for loan forgiveness. Also signing were leaders from the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston Children’s Museum, Museum of Science, Zoo New England, and New England Aquarium.

These places may be closed to the public, but live animals need food, enrichment, and medical care, and valuable works of art need to be guarded — and that can’t be done remotely. In addition, Teitelbaum said, “there are a range of planning positions, for example, thinking about our re-opening ... planning around social distancing. There are health and safety issues that we want and need to get right.”

A dog walker passed Boston Ballet's South End headquarters. The organization will furlough its employees in waves through July 27.
A dog walker passed Boston Ballet's South End headquarters. The organization will furlough its employees in waves through July 27.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The day when theaters and concert halls can again fill to capacity feels even more distant, plunging performing arts organizations into long-term limbo. A spokesperson for the Boston Symphony Orchestra — the state’s largest performing arts nonprofit — declined to say if layoffs or furloughs had taken place, but indicated that trustees will meet this week to discuss actions concerning the BSO’s many coronavirus-related cancellations, which wiped out the final two months of the Symphony Hall subscription season and the Boston Pops’ entire spring season. A final decision concerning the summer Tanglewood season will come in mid-May.

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Dawn Simmons, executive director of the Boston-based StageSource theater alliance, said via e-mail that at least four companies have furloughed or laid off administrative staff, with many more taking pay cuts. Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, which recently announced casting for this summer’s run of “The Tempest” on Boston Common, has committed to paying all artists and artisans contracted for the show. Should it be canceled, those rates “may not be 100 percent of what we would have paid them should the production have gone on,” said managing director Adam Sanders.

Meanwhile, some organizations have managed to avoid staff cuts. That includes Celebrity Series of Boston, Handel and Haydn Society, and Boston Lyric Opera. BLO and H+H took the additional steps of providing freelance musicians and production personnel with some funding to make up for canceled performances, with H+H pledging full pay for orchestral and choral musicians missing gigs. Leaders from those organizations credited the generosity of donors for their situation while casting a wary glance to the future.

“[Individual donors] have been concerned and as generous as they can be in the circumstance,” said Celebrity Series president Gary Dunning in an e-mail.

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BLO general and artistic director Esther Nelson wrote that the company’s board and larger donors have given generously, but other sources of revenue — including smaller philanthropic foundations — are facing their own challenges, or re-distributing funds to more recipients across the community. “[The pandemic] will mean less funding for BLO and the arts more generally,” she predicted.

Mass Cultural Council launched a series of webinars last week called “Safe Harbors” to give arts leaders a crash course on navigating emergency funding applications as well as planning for budget-related decision-making through the pandemic. If an organization can’t pay workers more than they would make on unemployment — or risks falling so far into the red that it jeopardizes its ability to reopen after the crisis — sometimes it’s better to furlough, Walker said.

But the mental toll is still significant, she added. “We tend to look at this from a dollars-and-cents point of view but there’s really a lot more to it.”

For example, Mass Cultural Council recently posted Walker’s public “Culture Chat” with Jacob’s Pillow director Pamela Tatge. The summer dance festival was canceled late last month for the first time in its 88-year history, laying off 10 people and reducing pay and hours for remaining employees. “The most tragic outcome of this was having to disband this team of people who work so well together, who know this idiosyncratic thing that is the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival,” Tatge said during the Zoom discussion.

Letting go of staff is often the “last thing” cultural nonprofits want to do, according to Walker. Because the people who help arts organizations pull off concerts, performances, and exhibitions aren’t just workers, she said. “They’re family.”

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.