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Boston’s cultural institutions hit hard times amid coronavirus pandemic

Mike O'Neill hand fed fish in the giant tank during the closure of the New England Aquarium due to the coronavirus pandemic.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The sharks, penguins, and other critters still must be fed at the New England Aquarium. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, once victimized by an infamous theft, continues to require heavy security. And the Boston Children’s Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts have vital maintenance that must proceed, pandemic or not.

After a month without any visitors paying for admission, and with no idea when they’ll be allowed to return, the city’s largest cultural institutions have been hemorrhaging cash as they try to preserve their invaluable collections.

The financial hardship and looming uncertainty has led to mass layoffs and furloughs and spurred museums in Boston and beyond to press Congress for $6 billion in emergency relief to cope with the lockdown.


At the aquarium, which has to feed some 20,000 animals in its care, the hardship has been acute.

“The business model for aquariums, museums, and zoos is dependent upon revenue generated from visitors and events; zero-revenue scenarios, like we’re experiencing now, have a devastating impact on us,” said Vikki Spruill, president of the aquarium. “In our case, because we need to pay for the care and welfare of our animals, federal aid is critically needed now more than ever.”

The lobby of the New England Aquarium sits empty.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

With ticket sales and event revenue supporting 80 percent of its monthly operating costs, the aquarium has already lost as much as $5 million in the month since it closed to the public, Spruill estimated.

That has led to some tough decisions. Spruill had to lay off 43 full-time employees and 80 part-time and seasonal employees. She furloughed another 50 full-time employees and reduced hours for others.

The aquarium has also cut back on some important conservation work it has done for years, such as coordinating rescue efforts of marine mammals. Its staff will continue responding to reports of strandings of endangered and threatened sea turtles, but they will now rely on federal officials and others to respond to calls for stranded seals, dolphins, and whales, a plan that was in the works before the virus.


“With our doors closed to the public for an indefinite period and the possibility of an economic downturn ahead, we have made the difficult decision to significantly decrease our budget in order to preserve the resources necessary to outlast the disruptions caused by the virus,” Spruill said.

At Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, the shutdown has resulted in the harborside museum losing as much as $2.5 million in the past month, nearly 15 percent of its operating budget.

“The impact is enormous,” said Margaux Leonard, a spokeswoman for the museum, which has committed to paying its staff of 169 through the end of June.

At the MFA, where conservators and security staff also continue to work, officials estimate the museum could lose as much as $14 million by the end of June, also about 15 percent of its operating budget.

They have yet to lay off anyone, but they’ve required 301 employees — more than half of the staff — to take furloughs. Many others who worked on an hourly basis have had their assignments eliminated.

Now, as at other cultural institutions, they’re starting to think about the future.

“Museums will likely reopen with a much different model,” said Karen Frascona, a spokeswoman for the MFA. “We’re having conversations with colleagues about what the future holds, and how we create a way to invite people back into the museum and encourage them to feel secure and safe.”


To defray their costs, the MFA and other local museums continue to collect membership fees, a significant source of revenue.

But the MFA and others have offered extensions on their memberships that account for the closings.

“Many members understand their dues are tax-deductible contributions and provide critical philanthropic support,” Frascona said. “We are seeing many longtime supporters renew their memberships early and forgo the extension, as well as some who are paying upfront for multiple years and buying gift certificates for their loved ones."

Among some 3,500 members who have done so is Bobbi Spofford, 65, a state employee from Salem and an MFA member for a quarter century.

The Museum of Fine Arts is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

“I have no problem with keeping a membership going at a museum if it's closed for something like this,” she said. “I think you get more than the cost of your membership on an annual basis, so I don't think losing two months during what is (hopefully) a one-time event is a big deal.”

Ron Thibodeau, 48, of Roxbury, had just renewed his membership before the MFA closed.

“I was a bit concerned,” he said, but the extension put him at ease.

His main worry now is when he’ll be allowed to wander the marbled halls and return to the coin room, where he has often spent hours opening the drawers and admiring the old money.


“It was my go-to place, when I needed a break from the world,” Thibodeau said. “Just to be surrounded by the beauty of the art, and to be able to grab a little lunch, as well, was a welcome respite.”

At the Gardner Museum, which has continued to pay its horticultural staff to tend to its beloved courtyard garden, officials estimate they’ll lose nearly $2 million by the end of June, or about 11 percent of the museum’s operating budget.

They’re also groping for answers about what the future holds.

“Economic relief for museums, and nonprofits more widely, is necessary to enable our organizations to continue to thrive,” said Griff McNerney, a spokesman for the museum.

David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.