fb-pixelBy the numbers: A year in ‘fiscal freefall’ for Massachusetts arts and culture - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

By the numbers: A year in ‘fiscal freefall’ for Massachusetts arts and culture

Jacklyn Boyland was front and center as demonstrators organized a group photo during a rally in Boston, MA on October 02, 2020.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

One year ago, the Museum of Fine Arts closed, the Boch Center shut off its lights, and the Middle East hosted its final live performance of 2020. Across the state, other venues — large and small — did the same. What has followed since that initial COVID-19 lockdown is an avalanche of financial losses and layoffs in the arts and culture industry.

“Some places have been absolutely decimated,” said Catherine Peterson, executive director of ArtsBoston, an audience-building and ticketing organization.

In the Before Times, the Bureau of Economic Analysis found that arts and culture contributed more than $800 billion to the US economy annually and employed 5 million people. Boston boasted more arts and cultural organizations per capita than even New York City, according to a 2016 report by the Boston Foundation.


But after a brutal year, where does the sector that entertains, enlightens, and sustains us stand? Data gathered by several groups representing the arts paint a picture of an industry in “fiscal freefall,” as Peterson put it.

Massachusetts arts and culture nonprofits reported at least $588 million in lost revenue since last March, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s March 8 report. Nationally, Americans for the Arts estimates $15.2 billion in losses at more than 120,000 nonprofits.

Of the 213 Massachusetts groups who participated in the Americans for the Arts survey, 69 percent felt a “severe financial impact” during the pandemic. Twelve percent are not confident in their survival.

As vaccinations continue, dine-in restrictions at restaurants are easing. Professional sports teams are starting to sell tickets. But much of the arts industry remains at a standstill. Even with theaters, venues, and stadiums allowed to reopen this month, many cultural institutions say they know that for them, “the new normal” is not yet possible.


Here is a look at the financial health of the arts in Massachusetts — a year after the curtains closed.

The losses

Nearly every cultural institution altered its business model in 2020. In Massachusetts, at least 78 percent expanded their online presence, per Americans for the Arts.

But certain groups are better equipped to survive COVID-19 than others, said arts researcher and Boston University professor Douglas DeNatale. Larger organizations armed with endowments and loyal donors will likely endure, he said, and small groups reliant on volunteers should also “come through pretty well.” It’s the mid-size organizations with higher overhead costs, full-time staff, and rent obligations that have struggled the most.

“That’s where I expect there will be serious loss,” DeNatale said.

The majority of organizations included in a November Boston Indicators report have faced a reduction in philanthropic giving and limited cash reserves.

A series of five surveys conducted by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency that makes grants to organizations and artists, documented significant economic losses in the cultural sector over 12 months. Non-profit and municipal entities in Greater Boston alone reported $373 million in lost earned revenue, and a $51 million drop in donor contributions.

The numbers are telling but incomplete, MCC operations director Jen Lawless said. Not all institutions answered each questionnaire. MCC counted each organization’s most recent response in the results, but some date back to last spring.


The same survey found more than 30,000 employees at Massachusetts arts and culture nonprofits have been negatively impacted. Americans for the Arts data showed 36 percent of the state’s respondents had laid off or furloughed artists. Thirty-two percent had laid off staff. And 33 percent had reduced salaries or payroll.

Unions also recorded grim numbers. The 234 members of the Boston ushers’ union (I.A.T.S.E Local 306) each lost around $21,000 in wages since March, president Jim Mootos said. Some 900 union-represented stagehands east of I-495 saw an 82 percent reduction in earnings in 2020, compared with the previous year.

In the first three months of the pandemic, “every job was cancelled,” I.A.T.S.E Local 11 president Colleen Glynn said. “One after another.”

The financial losses in the arts, a sector that accounted for 4.5 percent of the US economy pre-pandemic, affect other industries, Peterson said. “When the arts sector is not producing work on stage and in concert halls, it is a huge factor for restaurants, for our hotels, for tourism,” she said. “It’s all interconnected.”

The relief

Between March and August, at least 91 Massachusetts cultural institutions leaned on the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal loan initiative intended to help businesses keep people employed amid COVID-19. Most recipients got between $150,000 and $350,000, according to the US Department of Treasury. (The federal government has not yet published data for PPP loans granted after August, or for amounts less than $150,000.)

Without other significant government aid for the arts, “the PPP was one of the only assistance programs that helped,” said Mercedes Roman-Manson of the Massachusetts Live Events Coalition, formed to advocate for events workers after the shutdown.


Governor Charlie Baker’s administration earmarked $10 million that the MCC distributed to 183 nonprofits late last year. The 424 organizations who applied sought more than $30 million in grants — three times more than was available.

On an individual level, 28 percent of artists surveyed by the City of Boston Arts and Culture office in November applied for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. That program provides up to 46 weeks of unemployment benefits in Massachusetts. Another 20 percent applied for $500 grants from the Boston Artists Relief Fund.

“Clearly, there is still immense need,” the MCC’s Lawless said.

The future

When will cultural life return? “People want to come back,” DeNatale said. “But there needs to be a public perception that these are safe spaces.”

Eighty-seven percent of respondents to a February survey administered by ArtsBoston and consulting firm WolfBrown said they expect to attend arts and cultural activities the same amount or more than before the pandemic, once it’s safe to do so. More than 60 percent expected to return to live performances by September. Twenty percent said they would return by June.

Multiple leaders in the cultural sector said theaters and large arts venues cannot — and will not — open until capacity restrictions are largely lifted and mass vaccination efforts are completed. In the meantime, additional government funding is vital, Peterson said.


“Sure, we can open at 12 percent now, but that’s not how our business model works,” she explained. “We can’t survive on 30, 40, or 50 percent occupancy. That’s why we need a government buffer.”

The MCC is supporting a bill, titled An Act to Rebuild the Commonwealth’s Cultural Future, that would allocate to cultural institutions at least $200 million from any additional COVID-19 relief the state receives.

The $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus relief bill, signed by President Biden Thursday, sets aside $470 million for cultural organizations nationwide. But compared with the losses in Massachusetts alone, it won’t go far enough, said Peterson.

The relief allocation “may seem like a large amount of money, but when you split it up into 50 pieces, it doesn’t make a dent in what’s needed,” she said. “This is why it’s important to look to the Commonwealth, where our sector has had a reliably enormous economic impact pre-COVID, to make sure arts groups have the bridge funding they need to recover.”

As spring approaches, the arts industry is watching, making plans and contingency plans, and holding its breath.

“When we can, we need to reopen slowly — like a crescendo,” Peterson said. “Start off slowly, and build bigger.”

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her @ditikohli_.