“There is no such thing as a budget – it’s called survival,” said Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., President and CEO of the Boch Center. “You really have to hit 85% capacity to break even, so if you do 25% occupancy, social distancing, we’re not going to open.”
The region’s mid-sized performing arts organizations, many of which are funded in part by endowments ranging from $ 7 million to $ 30 million, have far fewer resources than large cultural organizations such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose endowment was $ 456 million last year. But they also come at a lot less cost: no full-time orchestra to maintain, and that’s not to mention properties like Symphony Hall and the sprawling Tanglewood campus.
These small artistic nonprofits are the pillars of a statewide cultural economy devastated by the pandemic: while the economic impact of the sector before COVID 19 in the state was estimated at 2.3 billion dollars, the first seven months of closures affected some 30,000 jobs in the sector and wiped out nearly $ 500 million in revenue, according to the Mass Culture Council.
The Boch Center, which operates the Wang and Shubert theaters, was particularly affected. Spaulding said that after laying off more than 200 part-time workers, cutting full-time staff from 50 to 15 and implementing pay cuts, the organization is still on track to lose around $ 40 million if it remains closed until September.
The Huntington Theater Company, which operates the Huntington Avenue Theater and the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, has also seen significant cuts, putting off nearly half of its full-time staff, cutting hours for many of those that remain and making deep cuts in its operating budget.
“We are essentially operating on just under 50 percent of our normal operating budget,” said managing director Michael Maso. “We pay for this mainly through contributed income. “
He added that companies like the Huntington can cut budgets so drastically because there is much less money flowing through the organization: ticket sales have evaporated, as have production costs. .
“We don’t produce plays,” he said. “We have a fabulous production team, and almost all of these people are on leave because there are no productions to build.”
Groups that don’t have to maintain a physical theater can cut costs even more.
“There are some advantages to not being tall in this environment,” said David Snead, president and CEO of the Handel and Haydn Society, which hasn’t cut back on the organization’s administrative staff. “We don’t have a high payroll. We don’t have 100 musicians. We don’t have a building. Our fixed costs are pretty low, so when it came time to sizing up the available resources, that was something we could do.
“This is the only time I would say the business model has in any way worked in our financial favor,” said Gary Dunning, president and executive director of Celebrity Series of Boston. He added that while he has managed to keep most of Celebrity Series’ full-time employees, the workers he usually pays in locations across town are suffering.
“There are well over 250 people that we hire through various vehicles, workers in concert,” he said. “They’re not getting anything from Celebrity Series.”
Digital performance hasn’t generated much revenue so far, but it has helped organizations stay close to their subscriber base. In many cases, digital programming has enabled groups to reach larger audiences as well. Handel and Haydn’s joint venture with GBH to produce a socially distanced “Messiah” last month drew some 140,000 viewers across all platforms – a massive expansion of the roughly 7,000 patrons who would typically attend live performances at Symphony Hall.
“Our goal is not really to generate income in these streams,” Snead said. “It’s about connecting and developing the brand. “
Other groups have also innovated with the digital format. The Huntington launched “Boston dream», A series of original audio pieces by local playwrights. Celebrity series coming season features performances from local and international stages, and at the end of January, the Boston Lyric Opera will release an animated stop-motion version of “The Fall of House Usher” by Philip Glass.
What is clear is that some form of digital programming is here to stay, said Michael J. Bobbitt, new executive director of the Mass Culture Council.
“Digital theater has certainly been the most important thing for most arts organizations,” said Bobbitt, who is currently artistic director of the New Repertory Theater in Watertown. “What can we do to make the space available for people who can’t make it to your theater? How can we use our enormous amount of creativity to merge live and digital? “
Many mid-sized cultural officials said their economic suffering had been reduced by the increase in donations. At the Huntington, board members created an emergency fund to help employees stay on payroll longer, and BLO’s board of directors launched a $ 7 million multi-year fundraising initiative to support operations.
“This is the total that we would need to give ourselves some breathing space,” said BLO’s executive and artistic director Esther Nelson, whose operating budget this year has been cut by almost half.
Likewise, thousands of regular patrons have helped bolster the finances of these groups by donating ticket prices for canceled shows.
“The vast majority of people let us keep this income as a donation,” said Snead, echoing several cultural leaders.
But while increased donations have shielded some groups from the worst economic ravages, they may also make it harder for the city’s performing arts organizations to access the $ 15 billion earmarked for the arts in the latest disaster relief plan. pandemic.
Grants will be disbursed in stages over the first four weeks they are available: only entities that have lost 90% of their gross revenue can apply in the first two-week installment, followed in the second cycle of two weeks by the demands of those who have lost 70 percent of their income. No more than 80 percent of the funds (or $ 12 billion) can be awarded in the first four weeks.
Organizations that do not qualify for the first rounds will have to compete with thousands of other such entities across the country for the remaining $ 3 billion. For these groups, it may be safer to apply for funding through the Paycheck Protection Program, a forgivable loan program included in the Last Relief Program.
“There is a high risk that they will burn out [of grant money]Nelson said. “From what I know now, we’d probably be better off doing the PPP.”
However, organizations eligible for grants could initially receive an amount equal to 45% of their gross income earned in 2019, capped at $ 10 million. Among them is the Boch Center, where Spaulding said he believed the organization would be eligible to apply in the first round and qualify for the full $ 10 million.
“This will have a major role in our ability to survive,” said Spaulding, who added that the money would not prevent the Boch Center from becoming a smaller organization. “We’re going to open leaner and meaner.”