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Federal funds are flowing to long-shuttered venues, after an agonizing wait

Nearly 250 theaters, museums, and other Massachusetts venues forced to close during COVID have received just under $200 million in aid so far

Gill Aharon, Andrew Stern, and Mike Connors perform at Lilypad in Cambridge. The venue recently received a federal grant.
Gill Aharon, Andrew Stern, and Mike Connors perform at Lilypad in Cambridge. The venue recently received a federal grant.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Before the curtains can rise again on live performances at the Wang Theatre, Joe Spaulding faces a mind-boggling to-do list.

The chief executive at the Boch Center rattles off just some of what it will take to reopen the 3,500-seat Wang by Aug. 6, when comedian Ali Wong is set to take the stage: revamp bathrooms for handless flushing, clean the chandeliers, lay down new carpeting, renovate the elevators, install ActivePure air purifying devices throughout the building and Evolv screening systems at the doors.

So it’s a good thing that Spaulding and the Boch Center are getting some help: nearly $9.2 million from the federal government. They’re one of the largest recipients in Massachusetts of proceeds from the newly created Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program — proceeds that are finally starting to flow to many stage owners that have grown desperate for a lifeline after more than a year without live events.

Joe Spaulding, chief executive of the Boch Center for the Performing Arts, posed in the lobby of the Wang Theatre.
Joe Spaulding, chief executive of the Boch Center for the Performing Arts, posed in the lobby of the Wang Theatre.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

As of Monday, the Small Business Administration has doled out nearly 250 awards in Massachusetts, more than $194 million in all. Recipients are located across the state, from the Maihawe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington ($296,500) to the Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet ($47,000). Funded through the $900 billion pandemic relief package passed by Congress in December, the program supports theaters, promoters, and museums whose ticket sales evaporated last year amid COVID-19 restrictions, with grants equal to 45 percent of a venue’s 2019 earned revenue, up to $10 million.

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The $16 billion program got off to a rocky start in April when its online portal crashed, delaying its launch. Many applicants struggled to figure out the right documentation.

SBA spokeswoman Elizabeth Moisuk defended the pace of the rollout, saying her agency inherited a complex program that required manual processing of applications and was hampered by red tape. To speed things up, the SBA replaced many personnel, bringing in key employees from a similar program for restaurants that got rolling at a much faster clip.

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Yes, the SBA’s $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund had its own issues, driven in large part by funding from Congress that fell far short of demand. That does not appear to be a problem with the venues relief program, which Moisuk said has enough funding for all qualified applicants so far. For many, the grumbling has turned to celebrating now that the spigots are open.

The money couldn’t come soon enough for Spaulding. The Boch Center raised $4 million in donations during the past year, in part to keep the salaries of 15 or so staffers through the pandemic and pay bills such as rent, insurance, and utilities. But to keep up, Spaulding said the nonprofit also racked up debt, which he hopes to significantly reduce with the federal funds.

“Remember we’ve had no earned income for 15 months,” Spaulding said. “Life was getting really tough, financially.”

While Governor Charlie Baker surprised the arts world by fully reopening venues in late May, the Wang stage remains quiet for now. The theater primarily serves touring acts that need months of lead time, though it occasionally hosts weddings and other events.

But the room is already hopping at the Lilypad, an intimate music club in Cambridge’s Inman Square that resumed shows last month, for crowds of up to nearly 100 people. For owner Gill Aharon, the nearly $79,000 federal grant meant not having to take from his family’s savings to cover his 2020 losses. “That shuttered venue grant is going to make me whole again,” Aharon said.

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Andrew Stern, Mike Connors, Jef Charland, and Gill Aharon performed at Lilypad in Cambridge.
Andrew Stern, Mike Connors, Jef Charland, and Gill Aharon performed at Lilypad in Cambridge.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Not everyone was as lucky. For 9 Wallis, a music club in Beverly, the clock ran out in June. Owners Vickie and Peter Van Ness decided to close for good after a string of setbacks during the pandemic. The final straw: Their landlord demanded all the club’s unpaid back rent. Peter Van Ness said he could only make partial payments during the previous year, because he was unable to hold performances in the club.

Van Ness estimated he was eligible for $200,000 from the federal venue assistance program. Had that arrived in February, he said 9 Wallis would still be open today.

“At some point,” he said, “you have to look at the finances and say to yourself, ‘Is this really viable or do we have to keep pouring our own money into it?’”

Mike Connors played the drums at Lilypad in Cambridge.
Mike Connors played the drums at Lilypad in Cambridge. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

A few blocks away at the Cabot theater, executive director Casey Soward was getting nervous about the fate of his venue’s application, worrying that it was stuck in bureaucratic limbo. Then on June 29 came word from the SBA that the Cabot’s request was approved; the money arrived two days later.

The $1.95 million grant will be crucial in helping the 850-seat Cabot recover from an awful year, Soward said, and resume a nearly $10 million capital improvement campaign for the theater’s century-old building in downtown Beverly. The Cabot raised about $1 million with a star-studded virtual concert in December, thanks to musicians such as James Taylor and Grace Potter, and held some outdoor shows at a nearby farm. But it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for COVID-related losses. For that, Soward put his hopes in the shuttered venue grant program.

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“We had to put the brakes on all of our capital projects because of the delays with the funding,” Soward said. “[The grant] will allow us to get back on track with our capital campaign and help sustain the operation.”

At the Citizens Bank Opera House, owned by impresario Don Law and philanthropist David Mugar, the grant of $7.9 million from the SBA will bring back full-time staff from furloughs and subsidize repairs and upgrades, such as improvements to ventilation and new Evolv Express entry-screening systems. The first scheduled performance is not until Nov. 2, when the musical “Hadestown” begins a two week run. In the meantime, one of the busiest theaters in New England will be a big construction zone, executive director Jim Jensen said.

After “Hadestown” moves out, the Boston Ballet plans to move in, to resume its long-running holiday performance of “The Nutcracker.”

Last year, like many performing arts groups, the dance troupe went virtual, landing 5,000 subscribers willing to pay $180 to watch six online shows. Boston Ballet tapped state and federal programs to maintain a staff of roughly 150 people, albeit at reduced pay. Two weeks ago, executive director Max Hodges learned Boston Ballet will receive an $8 million federal grant, which she plans to use to restore some lost pay, ramp up again for live performances, and fund some yet-to-be-announced public art and education.

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After the last 16 months, Hodges said, it’s an enormous relief.

“I am still in the euphoria stage,” she said. “We had been through a roller coaster.”


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