NORTH ADAMS — Seeking to help cultural institutions reopen, Berkshire state representatives have proposed a bill to bring in state funding.
Museums and other cultural venues face costs adapting to new safety guidelines, and the bill would establish an emergency relief fund of $75 million, which would be distributed by the Massachusetts Cultural Council through grants. State Reps. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, and William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, co-sponsored the bill, which they said would aid reopening of cultural institutions in a region where they are key economic players.
"We don't think $75 million is enough, but we're hoping it will get places open," Barrett said, expressing hope for additional federal funding. "They need help, and if they don't get that help, we'll be in a bigger predicament."
Experts say reopening the cultural economy is crucial to the Berkshires' economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The visitors brought by cultural attractions bring a "ripple effect," Barrett said, that can give a boost to local hotels, restaurants and shops. Barrett and Pignatelli have co-sponsored another bill to create an emergency relief fund for food service and hospitality workers.
Cultural institutions lost income from closing, but they say the costs of reopening are even greater. Barrington Stage Company had to remove seating to comply with social distancing guidelines. Its audience capacity will be reduced from 520 to 163 this season, but there will be even greater costs to reopen at full capacity next year, said founder Julianne Boyd.
"If we're going to get back to pre-pandemic or anything near it — to reopen the theater in 2021 — there's a lot that has to be done to reopen the theater and have more than 163 seats," said Boyd, who expects at best to break even in this year's shortened season. "The gap where we are right now and to open in 2021 is about $1 million to $2 million."
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art has ramped up expenditures on sanitizing, hygiene and infrastructure, as well as software improvements for advance registration and ticketing, said Director Joseph Thompson.
"We're spending that money right now in anticipation of being able to reopen, and yet obviously the gate is locked and dead quiet," Thompson said.
He added that while the museum lost income from closure — revenue from ticket sales and concessions account for 70 percent of Mass MoCA's budget — it continues to pay for security and custodial care to protect its assets.
"When you have delicate art objects, you can't just turn off the heat and air conditioning because those would be damaged," Thompson said. "There are human resources as well. You have lots of talented people who care for those resources, and we're doing our darnedest to keep that talented group of people together and working to the extent that we can under these new guidelines."
While Mass MoCA announced March 25 that it would lay off 120 of its 165 employees, it continued to pay their wages through April 10 and will cover their health care through July.
Thompson said the museum has received around 1,700 individual gifts from supporters, as well as some grants from foundations. Mass MoCA received $250,000 from the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust in return for raising $750,000 on its own.
"It warms the heart," Thompson said of donations, "but the cold cash is also necessary. If the commonwealth were to join this outpouring of private support, it would be remarkably welcome."
Barrett said he has spoken with those who run cultural institutions about the challenges they face.
"We've said, `You're preaching to the choir with us. Talk to your colleagues throughout the state to get their representatives behind this,'" he said.
The bill is currently with the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, a member of that committee, said she expects a hearing on the bill to be held within a week. Barrett expressed hope that cultural institutions could submit testimony before the committee.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said he is factoring the cultural economy into conversations as the Senate's point person on reopening and recovery.
"We're conducting a series of hearings starting this Friday," he said. "Those will lead to an economic development bill that we're going to take up in July."
There are also hopes for more federal funding.
"In the short-term, if there were to be this fund set up at the state level, we're going to use the dollars that the federal government gave the state to fund this," Farley-Bouvier said. "In the future, the idea is that the federal government directly funding cultural institutions is another avenue for support. It's incredibly important that our federal delegation does everything it can to support states right now and state budgets."
Hinds added that he hopes cultural institutions will get "a couple of weeks" of advance notice before reopening to allow for preparation. The additional time could help with hiring, marketing or rehearsals, he said, allowing organizations to establish "as robust a presence this summer as possible."
Continued uncertainty brought by the pandemic makes planning all the more difficult, Boyd said.
"Since March, it's been wait and see, so we're taking it a few months at a time," she said. "It's difficult running an arts organization when you can't plan really far ahead, so I think that's the challenge that we're all facing. Knowing that's the challenge, it's great that representatives Barrett and Pignatelli really understand that we're in a difficult spot."
Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.