For arts lovers, the pandemic became real that day a year ago when the curtain came down for the final time and the lights went out at their favorite venue. No live theater, no music, no dance — a world of light and color had faded to gray.
And while shops and restaurants are wheezing back to life — minus too many casualties that couldn’t hold on through those grim days — performing arts venues are mostly still shuttered. A few have attempted digital offerings at modest prices or for donations, just to keep performers performing — and to bring some joy back into the lives of their patrons. But for most, it has been a year of the sounds of silence.
Closing indoor venues was, undoubtedly, a necessary step. And packing too many people into crowded theaters is still risky. Governor Charlie Baker announced that on March 1 the state would enter Phase 3, Step 2, meaning some theaters could open at 50 percent of capacity. Boston, though, wisely opted to delay that step for theaters in the city until March 22.
Rushing to relax restrictions on theaters wouldn’t solve their problems, and the reality is that even if Boston hadn’t delayed the reopening, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference. Theaters can’t exactly turn on a dime; their business model doesn’t come close to working at 50 percent capacity; and a recent survey showed audiences aren’t ready to come back until at least next fall.
“Theaters can’t just start up overnight,” explained publicist John Michael Kennedy, who has represented dozens of them over the years and currently numbers ArtsBoston among his clients. “There are usually months of preproduction and weeks of rehearsals.”
Assembling a cast and crew is an art itself. And then there’s the challenge of actually turning a profit.
“The break-even point for most is 70 percent to 80 percent of seats sold,” Kennedy said. “So most organizations won’t be able to put anything together until they can be at 100 percent.” It may be months until it’s safe for theaters to fill all their seats — and even longer until they actually succeed in doing so. A recent survey of Boston-area artsgoers done for ArtsBoston showed pent-up demand (69 percent of respondents said they would attend as many cultural events as before the pandemic, or more, and 19 percent said they would attend more frequently). But most (62 percent) don’t anticipate coming back until September, and 19 percent won’t return until January 2022.
No matter when reopening occurs, the industry needs helps surviving its current woes. Already, however, 981 nonprofit cultural organizations in the state report lost revenue totaling at least $588 million, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, whose executive director, Michael Bobbitt, testified Tuesday before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees.
“Our once-booming, innovative, and vibrant cultural sector is in economic crisis,” he told the committee.
Bobbitt also made a pitch for the Legislature’s budget writers to restore the $2 million the governor proposed cuting from the council’s $18 million budget or, better yet, increase it to $20 million, saying a cut “at this time of economic crisis is untenable.” The council funds a variety of arts programs in schools and communities and offers grants to nonprofits, most of which bring in matching funds.
But even that amounts to little more than pocket change in a $46 billion budget.
What would help the arts community get through until the curtain can go up again is a proposed Massachusetts Cultural Economy COVID-19 Recovery Fund to be afforded with some $200 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds anticipated in the current stimulus package.
That bill, filed by Senator Ed Kennedy, chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, would make the council responsible for administering the grant program and allow recipients to use the grants to meet payroll, pay rent, or pay expenses associated with a “safe reopening.”
It would be the financial shot in the arm the arts community so desperately needs — at least until its eager audiences can safely return. And it’s but a small repayment for the endless joy and laughter and light these groups contribute to our communities and our lives.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.