Will there be a Fourth of July celebration with the Boston Pops on the Esplanade? Will there be a fall theater season? Will there be a “Nutcracker’’ this Christmas? How will it be possible to know when it is safe enough for audiences to return?
Those are the kinds of questions the leaders of Boston’s performing arts organizations wake up to every day. Their business model is built on live performance, and that means public gatherings in confined spaces — the very thing made dangerous by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking at a virtual roundtable organized and moderated this week by the Globe, five Boston arts leaders said they’re trying to map a way forward on a path that is marked by uncertainty at every turn. "We are playing some incredibly sophisticated games of Jenga right now, trying to figure out: Are we opening in September? Is it January?’’ said Dawn M. Simmons, artistic director of the Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company, and executive director of StageSource, which provides services to more than 200 area theater organizations. “Can we bring in 50 people? Is it 100 people? What does all of that look like?’’
At the first session of a series on how the arts can recover from the pandemic, titled “The Next Act,’’ Simmons and four other cultural leaders discussed the unique challenges faced by their industry, a vital economic engine. The others were Mark Volpe, president and CEO of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the largest performing arts organization in Massachusetts; Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company; Esther Nelson, general and artistic director of Boston Lyric Opera; and Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet.
They ranged across subjects such as what they see as insufficient public funding, the cultural community’s own failures to make a case for itself, the impact of closed theaters and concert halls on rank-and-file employees and artists, and the need to greatly expand their online presence. While candid about the precarious financial position the pandemic has put their organizations in, the leaders expressed confidence that mobilizing the inherently creative force of the arts will contribute to the survival of cultural organizations.
“There’s something about the last three or four weeks, six weeks, some energy which is about sort of a war footing, you know that there’s work to do, and you know that we have to think our most creatively and most compassionately in order to get through to the other side,’’ said the Huntington’s Maso. “My concern is at some point the adrenaline has gone, and you’re dealing with the implications of what’s to come in the next year. And I think that will be, honestly, even harder.’’
Coupled with that concern was a shared determination not to engage in an artistic retreat once theaters and concert halls do reopen, to continue to present challenging new work rather than crowd-pleasing warhorses. “The key is to stay true to our art form,’’ said Nissinen, of Boston Ballet. “I think safe is death.’’
Nelson, of the BLO, said her opera company remains “committed to new works’’ by living composers. That, she said, is where “most of the energies’’ in opera are coming from. “Even right now, we’re looking at commissioning a piece,’’ she said.
If necessity is the mother of invention, it can also be a spur to reinvention. One lasting consequence of the crisis is likely to be an increasing engagement with audiences via online streaming of performances — virtual second stages that would alter the identity of arts institutions long identified as bricks-and-mortar entities.
“We have been in the process of morphing, if you will, into a media company,’’ said the BSO’s Volpe. In the past month or so, he said, “We’ve had over 3½ million people access the BSO through our video streams, our audio streams, our social media platforms’’ to experience a combination of archived and live performances. While acknowledging that “the revenue model doesn’t quite work’’ for online presentations yet, Volpe said the BSO is now focusing on “how we ultimately produce content and disseminate it’’ as well as being “continually focused on how we emerge’’ from the crisis.
However, few organizations have the BSO’s resources — and even the BSO recently imposed staff furloughs and reductions in pay for musicians amid the cancellation of 130 events from mid-March to mid-June, with Volpe taking a 50 percent pay cut through Aug. 31.
In her capacity at StageSource, Simmons has seen the impact on theater staffers and artists who have been laid off or furloughed, or who have had performances canceled. Her days have been spent “trying to help people figure out how to navigate unemployment, trying to help people navigate the [federal relief] CARES Act, helping them find work in this moment,’’ she said.
There was consensus among the leaders that the cultural sector is hobbled by longstanding shortcomings in funding from the public sector and insufficient arts muscle in the private sector. Nonprofit cultural organizations contributed $2.3 billion to the Massachusetts economy in 2019, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s 2020 report to the state Legislature, and account for more than 70,000 full-time equivalent jobs each year.
“Boston, I think, is further burdened by the fact that we have a relatively small support base for the performing arts,’’ said the BLO’s Nelson. She added that local foundations “are very generous, but there’s not enough of them, unlike comparable cities around the country, so that’s a real problem. We also have relatively small public support.’’
Another obstacle is self-created: specifically, the failure of cultural organizations, collectively and individually, to craft a compelling message about the pivotal role they play in the communities they serve. Even though they tell stories for a living, they’ve fallen short when it comes to telling their own story.
“There is obviously an enormous amount of money that’s going to be dedicated to the airlines’’ as part of a federal bailout, noted the Huntington’s Maso. “There should be an enormous amount of financial support dedicated to our industry. We are gathering places, we are central to the experience of why people live in cities.’’
But, Maso added, “We’re not very good at making that case, is the truth. We have not been very good nationally, we’re not really that good locally. . . . But the case is there to be made."
Public sector support could be even more necessary if, as health experts have warned, there is a second wave of the coronavirus later this year.
“I mean, I already see the bottom of the barrel,’’ said Nissinen. “You know, when you ask, what happens if there is a second wave? That’s going to be dark times. The kind of decisions that are going to be evaluated at that point, you know, it’s like, I think about them, but I don’t want to think about them. That’s what keeps me up in the night.’’
There was agreement that limiting audience capacity to achieve social distancing, as Pittsfield-based Barrington Stage Company this week announced plans to do in August, is not financially viable in the long term because it would reduce the ticket revenues they depend upon to operate.
“We can’t survive on limited capacity and do the work we do,’’ said Maso, of the Huntington. Boston Ballet’s Nissinen agreed, and also raised an aesthetic objection. “For me, imagining a theater at one-third capacity, with the masks: I don’t see much fun about it. I also want to point to the economic realities. None of [Boston Ballet’s] shows make money. We have one production a year, ‘The Nutcracker,’ that generates some revenue. Everything else loses lots of money.’’
Asked whether Boston Ballet’s viability would be put in question if it proves not possible to produce “The Nutcracker’’ this year, Nissinen replied somberly: “Damn close.’’
The BLO’s Nelson raised the issue of the liabilities that performing arts organizations could face when they do reopen. “As we enter this new world, what does it mean to provide a safe working environment? Unless we have very, very clear directives [from public officials], that’s going to be confusing, and the liability issues are going to be enormous for each and every one of us.’’
The BSO’s Volpe said, “I don’t think, candidly, [performing] outdoors is necessarily the panacea. We’ve had upwards of a half a million people on the Esplanade, watching the Boston Pops and a fireworks show. Obviously we’re in conversation with the governor and his staff as to whether that’s prudent to do this year.’’
After recently canceling its spring Pops season, which had been planned as a celebration of Keith Lockhart’s 25th year as conductor, the BSO has said that in mid-May it will announce final decisions on whether the Tanglewood season and the annual Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on the Esplanade will take place.
Then again, wait-and-see is pretty much the order of the day for patrons of every art form. "Absolutely, people are going to want to gather again,’’ said Simmons, of StageSource. “We want to gather now. We desperately want to do it now. [But] the second part, when will people feel safe to do it? What are the steps that all of our organizations are putting in place to make sure that people feel safe — that’s going to be a process that takes time.''