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Cultural institutions in Boston continue to scramble for money as they reopen

The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound impacts on fund-raising efforts in the city

Bill Schawbel practices social distancing during a video at the Museum of Science on Friday. He was visiting the museum during Preview Days, a three-day event for museum members. The museum will reopen to the public on Sunday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

One by one, many of Boston’s cultural institutions are reopening this month after a painful four-month shutdown.

They’re happy to see visitors again. But these institutions have plenty of lost ground to make up after seeing at least one-third of their annual revenues wiped from the books, their major spring fund-raisers canceled or moved online.

Compounding their fiscal woes: attendance limits for safety reasons, which will result in further declines in revenue going forward.

Some started fund drives to plug the budget gaps, or turned to the federal Paycheck Protection Program for temporary help. Others reoriented their pitches for money as donors shifted priorities during the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. Some, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, haven’t even reopened yet. The one common theme: the coronavirus has altered fund-raising efforts among the city’s cultural institutions significantly, if not permanently.


“The loss of ticket revenue is going to cause some serious hardships for most of these organizations,” said Martha Sheridan, chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I would imagine that the competition [for donations] is pretty fierce right now given that every major corporation is impacted by COVID-19.”

Few institutions took a bigger hit than the New England Aquarium, which lost an estimated $16 million in earned income during the four-month closure. The aquarium cut, furloughed, or reduced hours for about half of its full-time staff. It has brought back about 40 for the reopening. The board has launched the “Mission Forward Fund,” which has raised more than $3.5 million to date.

The Museum of Science, which reopens to the general public on Sunday, also relies heavily on ticket sales; the four-month closure cost it an estimated $10 million in lost revenue. Nearly two-thirds of the 450-person staff were furloughed or laid off, although 50 have since returned. The museum has brought back its Pixar-themed exhibit with the anticipation it will draw crowds, though hopefully not too many people: to start, attendance will be capped at 500 at any one time.


New chief executive Tim Ritchie said donors are focused on the coronavirus right now, so he is trying to raise money in part to expand the museum’s digital offerings. “They want us to focus on how we’ll respond to the situation and be better,” Ritchie said.

The Children’s Museum reopened to the general public on Wednesday, after losing an estimated $2 million in revenue during the closure, including estimated revenue from admissions and memberships. The museum avoided layoffs, according to a spokeswoman, but did launch an emergency campaign to address the shortfall.

Zoo New England, operator of the Franklin Park and Stone zoos, saw a similar-size shortfall, but was able to open both zoos in early June as they are primarily outside. The organization now offers virtual learning for schools, as well as virtual birthday celebrations.

Zoo New England launched an “All for Our Animals Fund” in late March to pay for animal care, particularly during the shutdown. So far, it has raised $142,000.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum estimates it lost $3 million in potential revenue during the shutdown. It has been a cautious reopening this month, with daily attendance capped at 350, or 10 percent of regular capacity. Rebecca Ehrhardt, the museum’s new chief development officer, said the Gardner is focused on showing patrons how it can be involved in the conversation around social justice issues as well as arts education during the pandemic.


The Boch Center, the nonprofit operator of the Wang and Shubert theaters, faces a more dire situation. Chief executive Joe Spauldingsaid he has no idea when the theaters will reopen; it could be as far away as late 2021.

The Center laid off most of its 200-person team in March, while Spaulding himself was afflicted with COVID-19. It’s launched a fund-raising campaign, “Arts Heal,” which includes selling naming rights to individual seats in the Wang. He said he is fortunate the center can fall back on its $14 million in endowments. Spaulding has joined other independent operators in a national push, dubbed Save Our Stages, to persuade Congress for federal aid.

Some help for the cultural sector could soon be coming from the State House. The Massachusetts House leadership included $10 million for improvements at tourism attractions, and $5 million for grants to help artists and museums in an economic development bill unveiled Friday.Zoo New England would also receive $10 million. The bill also calls for a special task force to recommend ways to help the sector recover.

“It’s not a lot of money considering it has to be spread out across the Commonwealth,” said Sheridan, the head of Boston’s tourism bureau. “In the circumstances we’re currently in, I think every little bit helps.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.