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The Pandemic’s Impact on Artists and the Arts Ecosystem

By Peter Ciurczak

December 9, 2020

Boston Indicators produced this analysis with support from the office of Arts and Culture at the City of Boston, ArtsBoston, Dr. Douglas DeNatale and MASSCreative.

Artists and arts institutions provide tremendous economic and cultural value, but even before the pandemic hit, many in Massachusetts struggled to make ends meet. In Boston, small and medium sized institutions tend to rely principally on ticket sales and private donations for revenue, receiving much less public funding than their peers in other U.S. cities. These funding constraints in Boston are similar in other municipalities across the state. Consequently, as venues shut down to control the spread of the coronavirus, revenue dried up quickly. In order to paint a picture of how our state’s arts community has fared throughout the pandemic, this brief explores impacts across three parts of the arts ecosystem:

  1. Artists – who have in many cases lost income both from their creative work and from non-creative service-sector work, suffering a double-hit to their financial well-being,
  2. Arts organizations – many of which have been forced to make hard decisions about who to retain and who to lay off, with Mass Cultural Council survey respondents alone reporting revenue losses of almost $500 million,
  3. Audiences – who, while eager to return to patronizing the arts, are still largely waiting for a vaccine before doing so.

Part 1: Impacts on Artists

Among the best sources of information on how the COVID crisis is impacting artists in our region are a few local and national surveys of artists themselves. The roughly 2,400 respondents to Massachusetts’ Cultural Council (MCC) surveys, for instance, reveal a sector facing significant loss. Since March, surveyed artists, teachers and other workers in the humanities report a collective income loss of $20 million, and almost 40,000 lost gigs (individual engagements).

While MCC has a good overview of the economic situation of cultural workers across the state, it is through the City of Boston’s “Creative Workers Artists Survey” that we are able to get a more nuanced sense of how local artists changed their work in response to the pandemic. Launched in late April, this open survey looks at how the artist community is faring, and includes response from musicians, visual artists, art teachers and more. Though not designed as a representative survey, it nevertheless gives us useful information about the state of the community. Not surprisingly, because artists often rely on human interactions for their income—through performances, classes or art showings—many of these professional opportunities were suspended or moved online.

Many artists also work jobs in non-creative fields to help make ends meet. Often this supplemental non-creative work is in the service sector, which has also been hit hard during the pandemic, creating a double hit to artists’ economic well-being. Nearly a quarter have had to transition to digital work; while almost a third have experienced cuts in hours or have simply been laid off from their non-creative jobs.

As a result of these pressures, many artists in Boston have been unable to make up lost income. Still, there are some success stories. Roughly a third were able to move to digital programming, while a quarter were able to pick up new, remote jobs that helped fill the income gap. Respondents to the Creative Workers survey also suggested they were able to reschedule events to make up lost income. But without a firm sense of when these events were rescheduled to, it is unclear whether those events were held. Ultimately, in-person events will remain vulnerable to pandemic cancellations for the foreseeable future.

For artists who were unable to make up lost income (and even for some who have), a variety of financial support programs have provided temporary lifelines. More artists have applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the Boston’s Artist Relief fund than for any other program. Notably, almost a quarter of respondents reported they were ineligible for any financial supports, although it’s possible that some of these respondents were actually eligible for some support, only without realizing it.

Part 2: Impacts on Arts Organizations

The losses arts organizations have faced during the pandemic have been profound. In Boston, the iconic Allston venue Great Scott permanently closed in June, while other venues are up for sale or barely scraping by. The depth and breadth of challenges organizations across the state face are difficult to measure, but an organizational survey performed by Americans for the Arts (AftA) provides some insights to the problems they face.1

Organizational impacts due to the pandemic—both financial and operational—are significant. Closing museums and other venues has required these organizations to rethink their audiences, prompting a shift to digital events and programing. Likewise, the loss of in-person ticket sales forced organizations to dip into financial reserves to make up losses, freeze salaries, or ultimately lay off workers.

These efforts are stopgaps, designed to help institutions survive until business returns to pre-pandemic levels. Even still, these efforts may not be enough to keep these organizations afloat. Even as they dip into reserves to make up reductions in philanthropic giving, these resources are not inexhaustible. Unfortunately, many organizations now fear for their ability to pay bills and make payroll, and roughly a quarter of respondents ultimately fear closure.

Despite the broader challenges facing Massachusetts cultural organizations, some at least have been able to access supplemental federal funding. Implemented as part of the CARES act, the Paycheck Protection Program lends to small businesses to help them maintain their payrolls for around two months. The below graphs focus on a subset of these recipients; 91 cultural nonprofit organizations across Massachusetts that received more than $150,000 each from the program. These organizations have tended to be on the medium to larger size, with all but one having receipts greater than $1 million.

Using this data, it’s also possible to identify to which organizations these loans are distributed. Most have gone to museums, zoos or historical sites; for example, the Peabody Essex Museum, New England Aquarium or Plimouth Plantation. A significant number of other institutions that are not explicitly cultural venues or museums have also received support. These include organizations such as the Boston Architectural College (Arts Education and Training), the Massachusetts Historical Society (Historical Societies and Similar) and the Community Arts Center Inc. (Arts Centers).

As much as these supports are useful to the organizations that have received them, they are still only a part of what is necessary. To get a sense of just how broadly the financial situation has deteriorated across Massachusetts’ cultural institutions, we look again to the Massachusetts Cultural Council survey. From March through to October, cultural nonprofits reported losses of $379.5 million in earned revenue, and $104 million in contributed revenue. The combined losses of $484 million are almost 20 percent of the nonprofit art sector’s total economic activity (which includes all related economic activity, such as hotel and restaurant revenue), and likely makes up an even larger share of revenue of arts organizations alone.2 As a result of this loss, roughly 62 percent of MCC’s respondents report they’ve laid off, furloughed and/or reduced the pay and hours of their workers.

Part 3: Audience Response to COVID-19

An examination of pandemic impacts on the arts is not complete without looking at how audiences have responded. Fortunately, ArtsBoston, in partnership with the cultural consulting group WolfBrown, is conducting a regularly recurring survey that explores audience sentiments in Boston.3 For the most part, it shows audiences want to return. Indeed, they’ve already started, but only in a limited fashion. Between July and September, the share of respondents who’ve attend a museum or gallery in the last two weeks increased from 2 to 5 percent, while those who attended some sort of live performance increased from 1 to 4 percent.

Nevertheless, so long as COVID remains an issue, audiences remain wary. Larger venues were less popular across both the July and September audience monitor waves, though audiences became somewhat more comfortable attending smaller, socially-distanced venues over the summer.

It’s not just the number of seats in a venue that informs an audience’s comfort level, it’s also where the venue is, and what it does. The more the nature of a place encourages proximity, the less comfortable audiences are in returning. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the more a venue encourages distancing by the nature of its exhibits or performances, the more comfortable audiences are in returning.   

Despite respondents expressing at least some degree of comfort returning to arts venues, many audience members aren’t interested in returning to venues until they can at least guarantee their own safety. That means different things to different audience members, however. For some, safety requires widely available testing and treatment, or lower infection rates. But most audience members are waiting for vaccinations before they truly feel comfortable. Given that this survey wave was conducted before reporting on Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, it’s possible the share of respondents waiting on a vaccine may increase as audience members see a light at the end of the tunnel.

But as discussed at the top of this section, the caution audience members show in returning to the arts hasn’t impacted audience desire to experience art. Post COVID, patrons of the arts don’t see their consumption habits changing too much, instead viewing the pandemic as something of a pause. Roughly 76 percent of respondents expect to attend roughly the same number of arts and cultural events as pre-pandemic, while 18 percent expect to attend even more events. While these numbers may yet be rose-tinged—given the level of economic fallout and job loss the pandemic has engendered—these numbers suggest an audience that remains eager to participate in Boston’s cultural ecosystem.

Americans for the Arts (AftA) survey has 213 anonymous institutional respondents of any tax status from Massachusetts, some of whom have responded multiple times as part of the rolling survey. A plurality of responses comes from performing arts organizations. The second largest response group is a mix of other arts organizations, while museums and other visual arts institutions round out the top three respondent groups by organizational type. Responses stretch from April through November, though institutions are encouraged to respond every six to eight weeks, and older responses are scrubbed. Nationally, AftA believes the survey to be representative of the arts community, but representativeness varies at other geographies. AftA does not believe Massachusetts to have a representative response for the state, though respondent insights remain interesting.  

2 Based on 2015’s $2.3 billion economic activity figure from Why the Arts Matter in Massachusetts, inflation adjusted to 2020 using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator.

3 Arts Boston and WolfBrown have been tracking audience sentiment through the longitudinal Audience Outlook Monitor, which asks previous attendees at 16 arts organizations in Boston a series of questions to gauge interest in returning to arts and cultural events and venues. These organizations range from performance-oriented (such as Global Arts Live), to the MFA and Museum of Science. Like the other surveys used here, these responses are not meant to be representative of the general public.

Read more briefs from the COVID Community Data Lab