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New England News

Berkshire Legislators Push Relief Fund For Art Centers Hurt By Pandemic

Two older white men stand in front of a marble colonnade
Josh Landes
/
WAMC
Berkshire State Representatives Smitty Pignatelli and John Barrett, at a press conference in March 2020 at Pittsfield, Massachusetts' city hall

As COVID-19 related closures wreak havoc on Berkshire County cultural institutions, two state legislators are moving to create a relief fund to support them.

The 16-acre campus of MASS MoCA in downtown North Adams, Massachusetts has been silent since the first weeks of March. The normally bustling compound is an economic juggernaut for the community. A 2017 Williams College study estimates that the museum brings over $50 million to the Northern Berkshires.

“Without people coming in the front door, most of our front of house staff – box office, visitors’ services, many of our security folks – have had little to do and have been essentially at home," said MASS MoCA Director Joe Thompson. “We’ve begun a round of layoffs that go both deep and broad, stem to stern, every floor, up to down. And these are incredibly painful things to do. Many of my colleagues I’ve been with here for 20 years, or 24 years, or more. So that’s dismal, dismal work. But we’re doing it so we can get up to make art another day.”

The museum carried out the layoffs in late March.

“I think we’ve laid off 120 out of 165 employees," said Thompson. "Those who remain will either be on reduced shifts or are taking fairly substantial pay reduction.”

In this spring of social distancing, fear of infection, and death, MASS MoCA’s story is a similar one among arts and culture institutions in Berkshire County.

In the wooded hills of Becket, dance center Jacob’s Pillow canceled its summer season for the first time in its 88-year history, along with layoffs and pay reductions

“Our budget for 2020 is about $8 million, and the festival, our gala, and all of the ancillary revenue represent about 50% of that amount," said Director Pamela Tatge. "So it’s a huge hit the whole structure of our organization and how we operate.”

Now, local state legislators are trying to throw up some economic scaffolding for the institutions that draw thousands to the Berkshires every year.

“The creative economy, as you know, is the economic driver of the Berkshires – and it’s the third-largest industry in all of the commonwealth of Massachusetts," said 4th Berkshire District State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox. He and 1st Berkshire District State Representative John Barrett, a fellow Democrat of North Adams, introduced House bill 5017 this month. It would create an assistance fund for cultural nonprofits during the pandemic.

“It’s an opportunity to instantly have a seat at the table if and when we get more federal stimulus money to reopen the economy and get it jumpstarted," said Pignatelli. "I think people have really taken it on the chin. It’s devastating economically to the Berkshires.”

The bill calls for the state to establish a $75 million COVID-19 Nonprofit Cultural Organizations Emergency Relief Fund using money from the Commonwealth Stabilization Fund.

“We could probably use that in Berkshire County alone," Pignatelli told WAMC. "So, it’s really just to spur a conversation. The money would filter through the Mass Cultural Council, which has affiliations with all of these venues throughout the commonwealth.”

Pignatelli is eager for the county to reopen for the summer season, when traditionally tourism revenue bolsters the Berkshire economy for the rest of the year. In his hometown of Lenox, Tanglewood has yet to announce whether it will carry out its schedule. Its owner, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is furloughing almost 500 full- and part-time employees, and canceling the Boston Pops’ summer season.

“For you and I to go to see James Taylor on the 4th of July, an annual tribute at Tanglewood, I think it’s going to be a real challenge to draw those kind of crowds that are going to feel comfortable," said Pignatelli. "I think public safety and public health are going to be paramount, even if we open the doors tomorrow.”

Even with institutions like the Williamstown Theater Festival moving to a digital presentation instead of in-person events, Pignatelli describes a summer without shows and concerts “a game changer” for the Berkshires.

“The towns and the local economy do not get any hotel revenue, no meals revenue, no filling up at the local gas station," he told WAMC. "I think there’s really challenges going forward, so I think if we can get the economy open and salvage somewhat of a summer, it’s going to be hard enough as it is. But if we lose the entire summer, that’s going to have devastating, long-term impacts for the Berkshires.”

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