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Layoffs begin at Berkshires museums, cultural groups

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With no guests coming in doors at Berkshires cultural destinations, employees are going out.

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Hancock Shaker Village and the Norman Rockwell Museum all plan layoffs in bids to ensure their financial survival.

Other nonprofits are resorting to furloughs and deep cuts in salaries and expenses in an attempt to ride out financial losses during the coronavirus threat. Those still on board plan to rebuild shattered program schedules, dig in on fundraising and prepare their institutions to reopen when possible.

At Mass MoCA, 120 of 165 employees will be out of work by April 10. Hancock Shaker Village has laid off 10 of its 22 employees and will not hire the two dozen seasonal staff members who normally begin work next week.

And the Norman Rockwell Museum on Thursday told its staff of 75 that it will be cutting positions and curtailing operations after April 11, with details on its new financial plan coming by April 7.

"It's misery," said Joseph Thompson, director of Mass MoCA, which canceled performances as of March 7 and shut its galleries a week later. He said fears of contagion strike the heart of the museum's mission. "Which is to gather together large numbers of people around acts of creativity," he said. "That's the essence of what we do."

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, said she will be forced to reduce her workforce, cut pay to those who remain on and trim overhead where possible.

"It is clear that we won't be able to weather this alone," she said Thursday. "We'll need any help available from state and federal sources, and also from the generous donor community."

Other leaders of area cultural groups, particularly theaters, still hope to mount productions this summer. That includes Barrington Stage Company, where founder Julianne Boyd, who calls herself a "cockeyed optimist," says June shows remain a go.

But such plans could collapse, arts executives acknowledged this week, as they meet regularly with boards of directors, consult with peer organizations and take to the internet to engage with audiences they'd normally see in person.

Jennifer Trainer Thompson, director of Hancock Shaker Village, said the virus is straining those who work for cultural groups and their workers.

"My heart aches for every single one of them," she said of her staff. "Their dedication to the Village is enormous what we are asking of them — layoffs, salary reductions, difficult work environments — is really hard."

On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Cultural Council said a survey it conducted March 16-22 found that operations halted due to the virus had cost 566 nonprofit cultural groups more than $55.7 million in lost revenue. The nearly 600 individuals who took part said they had lost nearly $3 million in expected personal income.

Following are capsule reports on the financial conditions of major Berkshires arts groups:

Arrowhead

Author Herman Melville's former Pittsfield home suspended programming for March, including private tours. The site is run by the Berkshire County Historical Society.

"Arrowhead looks forward to updating you all on our programs later this spring," a post on its website reads.

Barrington Stage Company

Julianne Boyd, artistic director, said the company cancelled its first Stage 2 show planned for May but as of this week plans to produce its full season starting in June.

"However, the world is moving very fast. Every day is like a week and every week is like a month," she said by email in response to questions. "Therefore, we are keeping flexible in these uncertain times and meeting with our board and staff several times a week."

Boyd said all staff members remain employed. "For the time being, we have been able to keep everyone but the world is changing very fast — who knows what tomorrow may bring?"

Berkshire Museum

Jeff Rodgers, executive director, said the Pittsfield museum furloughed five or six employees whose jobs could not be done remotely, after it closed to visitors earlier this month. Like others, he is trying to prepare for a closing that lasts for three to six months, or even a year.

Meantime, Rodgers said staff members are creating video content for its website in an effort to remain connected with patrons, particularly families with children out of school. One such piece features the museum's 70-year-old tortoise. Staff have been equipped with video gear at home.

"I think we're starting to get the hang of it," Rodgers said. "We see this as a support to the community. None of us knows how long this is going to last. In my mind, we're all in this together, we don't know for how long, and the museum has to be part of the solution."

Berkshire Theatre Group

Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO of the Berkshire Theatre Group, said she has resisted layoffs so far, though employees are receiving less pay. And as many as 200 full-time seasonal workers who normally join the theater to staff productions at its venues will not be employed this year. While not layoffs, per se, that move takes a lot of arts jobs out of the mix for this year.

"If we see more dollars coming in the door I will adjust those reductions," Maguire said.

All staff have been subjected to what Maguire termed "vast" cuts in pay. "I didn't want to send anyone to the unemployment lines. We're not doing layoffs." Pay reductions reach 50 percent for the highest-paid employees, she said.

Maguire said an announcement is coming next week on changes to its season, which is presented at The Colonial Theatre and The Garage in Pittsfield and at The Playhouse and The Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge. "Everyone is really working hard and will proceed to whatever summer we can put on."

Boston Symphony Orchestra Tanglewood

In a statement Wednesday, the BSO said that all performances, including at the Linde Center at Tanglewood in Lenox, are canceled through May 2. Bernadette Horgan, a spokeswoman for the BSO, declined to say whether the coronavirus will alter plans after that date for Tanglewood performances or affect its summer staffing."

At present, we have no updates on the issues you raise," she said in an email to The Eagle. 

Separately, Andris Nelsons, the BSO's music director, indicated he has not given up on the summer season.

"When I find myself missing my BSO family, including our amazing audience, I look toward the summer and the incredible beauty that awaits us when the Boston Symphony Orchestra and many wonderful guest artists bring us their extraordinary music-making, inspired further by the magnificent atmosphere of Tanglewood surrounded by the beautiful Berkshire hills," Nelsons said in a statement Wednesday. 

Clark Art Institute

Since the Williamstown museum closed March 14, most staff members have been working from home, except for security guards and people who manage the building, said Vicki Saltzman, director of communications.

No layoffs have taken place, she said Thursday.

"Most of our team is working from remote locations and remaining as productive as possible given these unprecedented times," Saltzman said. Members of the museum's "frontline" staff are engaged in planning or catching up on existing projects.

The museum says it plans to update the public on its status by April 7.

Hancock Shaker Village

Instead of adding 25 seasonal staff next week, the Hancock nonprofit is hunkered down to weather lost revenue due to its closing. Ten of 22 employees have been laid off, according to Jennifer Trainer Thompson, the center's director. On top of that, eight people who normally would staff Seeds, its cafe, are out of work.

Those still working faced what she termed "steep" salary cuts.

In an email to the community Wednesday, Thompson said the village's season is now projected to open May 15, but added, "that may change."

"We've always been a lean operation, and we are taking painful measures to deeply cut expenses further - laying off staff, salary cuts, reducing expenses at the farm dramatically," she wrote. "This Shaker village has survived since 1790, and it will weather this storm, but only with the support of our loyal friends and donors. If you can give, now is when we need it most."

Jacob's Pillow

Nicole Tomasofsky, spokeswoman for Jacob's Pillow, said the company's staff and board members have spent the last few weeks considering how to handle the summer season.

"There is a board meeting scheduled for next week and we are anticipating issuing an updated public statement after that," she said Thursday.

Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center

Janis Martinson, acting executive director of the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington, said she has not yet laid off or furloughed employees, but is making decisions about the center's operations "daily and hourly."The center has 11 full-time and nine part-time employees.

Still, she notes that the center's closing is taking money out of the pockets of performing artists and their teams, along with outside nonprofits that rent the space for shows. An economic impact study in 2019 found that the Mahaiwe generates $8.6 million in yearly economic activity and supports more than 100 jobs. 

"There are highly skilled people who work with us when we have shows, either directly or through contractors, whose income is affected when the theater is dark," she said of the center's partners.

Martinson said that as she manages through the crisis, she feels an ethical obligation to try to protect people who allied themselves with the arts.

"People who have foregone a profit motive," she said, "and [have] chosen to do this mission-based work for the love of it."

Keeping them working, she said, would enable the center to reopen with a robust schedule of performances. A reopening date has been pushed back twice; it is now May 15.

Mass MoCA

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams will lay off three-quarters of its staff in early April — 120 full- and part-time employees — while cutting the pay of those kept on, including a team working to rebuild its programming once fears of contagion subside.

The museum's financial crisis began after it cancelled performances as of March 7, then shut its galleries a week later.

"The closing had a particularly harsh effect on our operating budget," said Joseph Thompson, its director. Though an endowment contributes 7.5 percent of the museum's $12 million yearly operating budget, Mass MoCA depends on money from ticket sales and concessions — which account for 70 percent of its revenues.

Though it has lost revenue from admissions and normal operations, the museum continues to receive revenue from more than three dozen tenants, including The Berkshire Eagle, which operates a news bureau on the property. Government grants make up less than 2 percent of its budget; 28 percent of its income comes from gifts from foundations and individuals.

The shortfall is severe enough to prompt trustees to authorize an emergency withdrawal from the museum's endowment, freeing up cash for current expenses.

The Mount, Lenox

The Mount has told its staff that layoffs and furloughs are possible, though Susan Wissler, its executive director, hopes new federal legislation can be tapped to cover payroll and overhead through the crisis."We're still very much in the information-gathering stage," Wissler said Thursday. "We're exploring all three options very openly." The nonprofit's roughly dozen staff members are working from home. Hiring of the center's 30 to 40 full- and part-time seasonal staff is on hold.

"We are doing our best to ride out the storm without grinding to a complete halt," Wissler said. "This season is going to look vastly different."

As of now, The Mount's schedule calls for it to open May 9.

Norman Rockwell Museum

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Stockbridge museum, says job cuts are coming, though its 64 current employees will be working until April 11.

"It is a very challenging time for an arts organization whose revenue, like ours, comes primarily from earned revenue," she said. "All arts organizations will soon have to make difficult decisions."

The museum closed March 13. Employees have been working from home, Norton Moffatt said, to prepare for summer and to provide online content for students and teachers — and to "offer a respite of community for people confined to their homes."

But by April 7, she expects to announce staff cuts forced by losses in earned revenue because the museum is closed.

"Looking at the anticipated disruption in the months ahead, we know we must adjust our scale of operations and be strategic," she said. "We are being very deliberate in creating a plan that will best sustain the museum through an extended period without revenue, and which will also allow us to reopen and serve the public fully when the crisis is past."

Shakespeare & Company


Shakespeare & Company plans to reveal soon how it will approach its summer schedule "in a way that keeps everyone safe," according to a web post by Allyn Burrows, its artistic director.

"We have to put the health and safety of our patrons and artists at the priority that is required to eradicate the coronavirus," the statement reads. "We are examining all the facts and will make a determination very soon on how to proceed."

Williamstown Theatre Festival

Alana Karpoff, who handles media inquiries for the festival, said the Williamstown theater had no changes to report "at this time" regarding its 2020 season.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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