'A harsh and disheartening reality' as Jacob's Pillow cancels season (copy)

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, like most other cultural organizations across the Berkshires, canceled its season last year when the coronavirus pandemic hit. “2020 was a challenging year for arts organizations across the nation, but in reality, the forecast for 2021 is even more grave,” said Artistic and Executive Director Pamela Tatge.

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed 10 percent budget cut for the Massachusetts Cultural Council would stifle the struggling recovery of one of the Berkshires’ biggest economic drivers, advocates say.

Baker’s fiscal 2022 recommendation, unveiled Jan. 27, would reduce the council’s budget to $16.3 million, with an additional $959,600 set aside for federal grants. The current fiscal 2021 allocation is $18.2 million.

The proposed cut comes as nonprofit and municipal cultural organizations across Massachusetts have reported over $484 million in lost revenue since the coronavirus pandemic hit last March, according to a survey released by the council in November. Western Massachusetts reported the largest loss outside Greater Boston, totaling just over $55 million and over 5,000 jobs.

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, one of Berkshire County’s largest tourist attractions, was hit especially hard — it laid off 120 of its 165 employees in April and slashed the salaries of remaining employees by more than 20 percent.

Bethann Steiner, cultural affairs director for the council, called the budget proposal “consistent” with Baker’s previous recommendations but said it would hinder programming considerably.

The council plans to conduct another survey this month and hopes to release the results in March, she said.

“We believe providing updated economic impact figures of COVID on the sector will be important as the House and Senate go through their budget processes this spring,” Steiner said.

“We look forward to engaging with our partners on Beacon Hill in the House and Senate during the budget-building process, and know our advocacy partners at MASSCreative and Mass Humanities will help us with this effort,” added MCC Executive Director Michael Bobbitt.

“Our belief is that the commonwealth’s economy cannot fully bounce back from the pandemic without the cultural sector — and reducing state funding to Mass Cultural Council in FY22 will only hamper these recovery efforts.”

One of those partners, MASSCreative, has advocated for more federal support for the arts of creative sectors across Massachusetts. The nonprofit, which was founded in 2012, has been urging state legislators to contest Baker’s recommendation.

“Without significant relief, and without continued, sustained relief, Massachusetts is going to suffer,” said MASSCreative Executive Director Emily Ruddock.

Ruddock and MASSCreative have been pushing for increased federal relief, as well as state relief through the continuation of the Cultural Organization Economic Recovery Grant Program, a $10 million initiative that the Baker administration included in its economic recovery plan. The grants seek to help small cultural nonprofits weather the pandemic, atop an additional $31 million the council received through the previous session’s economic development bill.

“The piece that’s really important is that public support for arts, culture and creativity prior to the pandemic was growing, but it wasn’t meeting the needs of the sector already,” Ruddock said. “And now the sector is in crisis with significant job losses, with significant revenue losses, and there is a need for not just ongoing support, but there is also the call we’re trying to ring and say loudly, ‘Recovery dollars are still needed.’ ”

Several Berkshire organizations have expressed similar sentiments, including Jacob’s Pillow in Becket. Artistic and Executive Director Pamela Tatge said, “2020 was a challenging year for arts organizations across the nation, but in reality, the forecast for 2021 is even more grave.”

“Since the arts are one of the primary economic drivers in western Mass., subsidizing the income gap for our region’s arts organizations is necessary for sustaining our communities and the only way our sector will survive the devastating losses we have experienced,” Tatge said. “The arts are essential to the healing and community-building our region will need to rebound.”

But, that perspective is not unanimous.

“While event restrictions and capacity limits are frustrating for everyone, we strongly believe that the public health recovery must precede the economic recovery — and we’re confident that both are in sight,” said Karin Watkins, who co-chairs the Downtown Great Barrington Cultural District, which Watkins said provides continued support to local cultural businesses.

Fiscal year 2022 begins July 1, and the House and Senate are expected to write and debate their own budget proposals in the coming months.

Ruddock encourages reaching out to legislators to advocate for an increase in funding for the cultural sector.

“The gains the creative community has made in terms of public support for arts culture and creativity over the last six years are at stake right now,” Ruddock said. “We’re in crisis, our whole commonwealth is in crisis; we’re not the only sector that has been impacted by this, but we need to continue to work hard to make sure that elected officials and decision-makers understand that part of what makes Massachusetts great is our cultural sector and our cultural community. We can’t afford to lose that right now or as we emerge from the pandemic.”