Coronavirus closures put Boston’s arts, cultural institutions in ‘dire’ situation

Local galleries and artist spaces are shuttering at an alarming rate as the coronavirus pandemic slams Boston’s storied cultural institutions large and small.

“It’s another nail in the coffin,” said Parama Chattopadhyay, art director of Out of the Blue Too Gallery in Allston. The Harvard Street gallery will close its doors for good this week, unable to keep up with rent after the coronavirus pandemic forced the gallery to close to customers and cancel the art parties that helped sustain them.

The 25-year-old gallery has given rise to hundreds of independent artists and musicians in Boston throughout its lifetime. The closure stands to have a ripple effect as more and more artists — and the spaces that support them — struggle to make ends meet.

Great Scott, a venerable Allston music venue, announced last month it would permanently close, though efforts are being made to reopen it somehow, possibly at a different location. The South End’s historic 73-year-old jazz hall, Wally’s, is also teetering on the brink.

Independent gallery and performance spaces like Out of the Blue were struggling to keep their Boston zip codes long before the pandemic struck.  The owners of Johnny D’s closed the beloved Davis Square music club of nearly 50 years in 2016, cashing in with developers who built a condominium complex on the site.

Even opening up at a reduced capacity doesn’t bring in enough cash to cover the basics of rent and utilities, Chattopadhyay said, noting she’s taken on personal debt to keep the non-profit afloat.

Larger cultural institutions like museums, galleries and the New England Aquarium can start reopening in phase 3 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s four-phase reopening plan. That step has already been pushed back once, with the earliest reopening date now slated for July 6.

But when their doors do reopen, it will be to much smaller crowds New England Aquarium President and CEO Vikki Spruill said.

“We don’t know what the future holds and that uncertainty is what’s been the most difficult to plan for,” Spruill said.

Spruill said she was forced to furlough nearly half of the aquarium’s 200 or so employees. With more than 20,000 animals to feed and take care of, the aquarium is losing about $2.7 million a month, more than $8 million since the pandemic began.

Ticket sales and event rentals are major income drivers for place like the aquarium as well as the city’s many museums and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Mark Volpe of the BSO said as of June, they had lost more than $52 million in income. The orchestra’s Tanglewood summer season has been canceled. Roughly 470 workers were furloughed.

“Our endowment and annual giving is our lifeblood right now,” Volpe said.

As of April 15, nonprofit cultural organizations across the state reported a loss of more than quarter of a billion dollars, in a survey conducted by the Mass Cultural Council.

A second survey is ongoing through the end of June with results expected early next month, according to the organization.

“These are dire times. More than 15,000 Massachusetts workers in the cultural sector have been laid off, furloughed, or are working reduced hours or with reduced pay,” said Anita Walker, executive director, Mass Cultural Council. “The COVID-19 pandemic is crippling our cultural organizations.”

For the smaller nonprofits and independent artists, there is no endowment or deep-pocketed donors to fall back on — and the demise of many of those smaller institutions is already starting to play out.

When it comes to the cultural fabric of what makes Boston feel like Boston, “there’s going to be a lot missing,”  said Tom Tipton, performance director at the Out of the Blue Too Gallery.

Chattopadhyay said she’s finding a “silver lining” in knowing that the gallery space will live on — albeit in a less physical sense. Chattopadhyay is taking a few of the artists’ works to Somerville Arts at the Armory, where they will continue to sell art and throw smaller events in a limited capacity under the name Parama Chai Gallery.

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