As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps public life locked in limbo, arts and culture institutions are working to survive an immediate future with little to no revenue. That has brought harsh budget cuts and widespread layoffs to organizations with even the fullest coffers.
The result may be a lost generation of capable arts and culture professionals, dedicated workers whose commitment can no longer be matched by the struggling sector. Ed Rodley, for example, was one of the museum world’s “lifers.” Rodley was 11 years old when he first stepped into Boston’s Museum of Science as a junior volunteer, and he took his museum career professional straight out of college. “I’m old enough that I can remember when people smoked at their desks,” he said in a phone interview.
But Rodley’s job as a digital media designer was eliminated when Peabody Essex Museum cut 15 percent of its workforce earlier this year. And now he wonders whether that was the end of his decades-long run as a museum worker.
“I’ve been unemployed since mid-June,” he said. “I’ve seen a grand total of two jobs that were even vaguely similar to what I had been doing at PEM — and both of them are in Qatar.”
A July report from Mass Cultural Council predicted more than 17,000 nonprofit arts jobs would be affected by the pandemic. Indeed, the summer brought deep layoffs at three of the area’s largest cultural bastions: the Museum of Fine Arts, Peabody Essex Museum, and Boston Symphony Orchestra, with countless smaller organizations quietly dismissing or furloughing employees.
Many of these now jobless professionals were responsible for the unglamorous behind-the-scenes labor that keeps the sector running; marketing concerts and exhibitions, managing ticket sales, coordinating special events. While these jobs were highly sought, they often came with long hours that included nights and weekends. “Museums in particular are famous for overworking their staff [because] ‘we have to do more with less,’” Rodley said. He suggested the industry’s former workers are primed to take opportunities doing similar work for better pay and work-life balance, even if the work itself is less rewarding.
“[The field] is going to shed a lot of people,” he predicted. “The successful ones will go elsewhere — and the unsuccessful ones will also go elsewhere because they’re going to have to find something to pay their bills.”
Some laid off employees of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have found temporary support through GoFundMe campaigns set up by former colleagues. Shortly after the MFA announced in August the elimination of 113 positions (achieved via a mix of layoffs and early retirements) a team of workers organized a mutual aid fund that raised more than $125,000 to help colleagues facing financial difficulty because of job loss or other pandemic-related hardships.
“This effort was made successful by support and solidarity from all levels in the organization,” the fund’s steering committee wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. The top three donors to the campaign, as listed on GoFundMe, are current MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum, former director Malcolm Rogers, and deputy director/CFA Mark Kerwin.
BSO musicians and administrators also donated thousands to a fund drive in support of the 50 full-time administrative workers who lost their jobs at the end of August. “I know the BSO was trying to do everything they could do [to keep people], but I think everyone understood that the situation was changeable, because of the pandemic,” said fund administrator Tammy Lynch, who lost her job of six years in front-of-house management. The fund has been successful enough to disburse money to around 80 former BSO employees, including part-timers and contract workers who lost earnings because of canceled concerts.
Lynch holds no resentment toward the orchestra, and said she would eagerly return to her old job if asked. “My time at the BSO has been one of the best experiences that I’ve had anywhere,” she said. “I have nothing but positive things to say.” Still, she’s unsure where her career will go next. She’s taking time to garden, cook, and volunteer with a Roslindale food bank while figuring it all out. “Trying to do things that matter and that help me grow a bit,” she said.
For some, the timeline is tighter. One Boston-based arts professional is in a tough spot after losing a job with a major institution in early summer, leaving only a few weeks to collect the $600 weekly federal unemployment boost before it expired in late July. For a few weeks, there was another $300-per-week supplement, also funded by the feds. But the situation became especially dire when that benefit expired last month. “The arts is going to be one of the last elements being integrated back into daily life,” said the jobless worker, who spoke anonymously after signing a separation agreement.
When this person was job-hunting last year, they primarily looked in health and human services, but jumped at the opportunity to work in the arts. Now it’s back to plan A — with hopes of finding a job before their lease expires, or else they’ll be forced to move.
Another furloughed employee of a local arts presenting organization (who also signed an agreement) is trying to stay positive but hasn’t found much cause for optimism. They’ve been looking at jobs that seem more “recession or pandemic-proof,” worried that arts organizations may use the scarcity of jobs as an excuse to keep salaries lower once hiring resumes.
At this point, Rodley can’t imagine a future working exclusively in museums. “The timeline for there being enough satisfying museum work to do is unknowable at this point. It’s going to be years and years... And as somebody in his 50s, I don’t have years,” he said. “If I want to actually do interesting, impactful work, I’m going to have to look elsewhere.”
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.