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At ArtsBoston, a pandemic pivot

ArtsBoston executive director Catherine Peterson, shown at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts.
ArtsBoston executive director Catherine Peterson, shown at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The pandemic has changed the city’s arts organizations for good. Nowhere is that more true than at ArtsBoston, the 46-year-old arts advocacy and service nonprofit that is perhaps best known for BosTix, a discount ticket service with kiosks at Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Copley Square. Over the past 18 months, the organization has taken on a host of new, mission-defining responsibilities, including an embrace of smaller arts organizations and an attempt to better understand how the pandemic is affecting audience behaviors.

We spoke with longtime executive director Catherine Peterson about ArtsBoston’s changing work, and what it means for the organization’s future.

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Q. How would you say that the pandemic has changed the organization’s work?

A. Significantly. A lot of our programs are based on selling tickets and affordable advertising. That all came to a close in March 2020. But what didn’t come to a close was the need to understand how audiences were reacting to the pandemic and helping arts organizations understand how they could stay engaged with the public. So we partnered with WolfBrown, one of the leading cultural researchers in the nation, on a longitudinal survey they were rolling out across the country to look at how people were reacting and providing real-time feedback for the entire arts community. We also really focused on amplifying arts programming through social media and e-mail lists and worked to support our colleagues of color, who were much harder impacted than the rest of the community.

Q. Has the work that you’ve done over the pandemic somehow redefined your mission going forward?

A. Absolutely. The combination of societal change, and looking at what does belonging mean for the arts community in Boston? What does it mean for an arts community to embrace everybody? And what does that mean at ArtsBoston, for new board members, for new staff members, and for community-based organizations that we traditionally haven’t been serving? So it’s changed us significantly. We’re taking a big deep breath and really refreshing our strategic plan right now based on what’s changed in the world and in Boston.

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Q. We’re talking specifically about supporting smaller groups beyond advertising and ticket sales?

A. Absolutely. Not only do we have the capacity for that, but the rich interchange of ideas between large organizations and small, and peer-to-peer of the same size. It’s so much richer if it’s not just the mid-size and larger groups.

Q. What are some of the more surprising findings from the longitudinal survey?

A. As soon as the vaccine became available, we could track very clearly that arts audiences in our survey were not only highly inclined to get vaccinated, and they actually did it: 99 percent of Boston arts audiences in our survey are now vaccinated. That was a stunningly quick thing to be able to realize and helped arts organizations formulate how to move forward in reopening.

The other is: Whoa, it is very clear right now that this is going to be a long recovery. There was a feeling at first that there was this huge pent-up demand, and the minute we could fling open the doors, people would be rushing back. That’s not the case. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take word of mouth.

Q. Can you talk about some of the work that you’ve done to help arts organizations. Obviously, money is necessary, but are there other needs below the surface?

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A. Visibility, especially with the smaller organizations. Who got chopped when people had to be furloughed or let go? It was marketing folks, and it was box office folks. There was a lot of expertise that left organizations. We knew we could use our social outreach, our e-mails, which are pretty substantial, and our visibility outdoors to really get the word out about these smaller groups’ offerings. We really made space for small and mid-size guys who might not otherwise have the ability to reach as many people.

Q. You mentioned this recovery is going to take a long time. What is it going to take to get more people to go out?

A. It’s going to take word of mouth. People are having great experiences, and it’s going to take them telling their friends, family, and co-workers. Everybody has a different level of comfort with how they feel being out in the world with other people indoors. That’s going to roll out over the next few months, as people get acclimatized to what’s on offer. It will come back, but it is going to take time.

Q. We’re never going back, but what is it going to take for the arts to recover? What does recovery look like?

A. It’s not about going back to our former health, because I’m not sure the arts sector was all that healthy to begin with. I see it much more as: What’s it going to take to create a new arts community in Boston, where everyone feels like they belong and has business structures that allow for experimentation and artistic freedom so many voices can be heard?

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That’s a long road ahead, perhaps instead of thinking right now on the very end destination, we should think about the next five years, and what it will take to start rebuilding infrastructure with organizations that look more like our community.

Interview was edited and condensed.


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.