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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: Berkshire cultural destinations feeling the slow pace of returning to 'normal' after COVID

While COVID is not the viral force it once was, it seems the symptoms are lingering a bit longer with Berkshire box offices and cultural institutions. As such, the region’s critical creative economy is not seeing the so-called “pandemic rebound” it had hoped for this year.

The much-vaunted return to normal out of the COVID era was always going to be a slow off-ramp, and the length of that off-ramp and the definition of “normal” is going to vary depending on the sector. Arts and culture organizations obviously were hit hard during the pandemic, and while it’s not as dire as 2020, for many venues this year’s numbers still don’t quite stack up to 2019, the last year with pre-COVID numbers to compare.

It’s not for lack of trying to adapt. From reduced budgets and reconfigured schedules to targeted discounts and deals, many of these cultural venues are trying to meet audiences where they are in terms of comfort levels with crowded halls and performance spaces.

Still, internal data from some of the county’s biggest arts venues suggests they’re seeing a 30 percent decline in ticket sales and attendance compared with 2019.

While that’s an average across multiple enterprises, it’s been a visible phenomenon at some of the region’s summer season highlight venues like Williamstown Theatre Festival to Jacob’s Pillow that have seen a smaller amount of bodies in seats than anticipated.

While this data is not thrilling, it’s at least good to have it in hand to track with clear eyes the recovery of a cultural sector so key to our county’s economy and vibrancy. More data is needed to tell whether this is a trend worth worrying more about or simply a symptom of some organizations perhaps carrying expectations that were too lofty into what some feel is the first “normal” year post-COVID.

Either way, this and other data could suggest what else venues could look to in an effort to meet potential audience members where they are. It’s tougher to track than box office numbers, but it might be the case that a couple years of diminished indoor activity has led to increased outdoor recreational activity — whether that’s in the form of less-organized outings like hiking and camping or entertainment that takes place at least partly outdoors. That might speak to why Tanglewood is an outlier among the region’s big cultural destinations in bringing in better numbers compared to pre-COVID standards, though the blockbuster popular artists series certainly plays a part as well.

A trend toward more interest in outdoor recreation than indoor entertainment, such as it is, could prove new approaches to attracting tourism like the landmark Greylock Glen outdoor center in Adams to be quite prescient. It could also suggest adjustments for certain venues that might explore dedicating some of their schedule to outdoor or open-air performances.

We don’t quite have the data yet to determine whether the current picture signals audience habits truly shifting in the long term or just taking a bit longer to readjust. Either way, it will affect the fate of our world-class cultural sector and the future of our community. We wish those institutions luck in what we hope is ultimately a period of improving adaptation instead of continued struggles.

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