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Testimony in Support of Rebuilding the Commonwealth’s Cultural Future

Bethann Steiner, Public Affairs Director

On September 28, 2021 the Legislature’s Committee on Tourism, Arts & Cultural Development held a virtual public hearing on bills regarding COVID-19 recovery. Mass Cultural Council Executive Director Michael J. Bobbitt testified in favor of S. 2246, An Act to rebuild the Commonwealth’s cultural future. You can review his testimony below.

It is important that the Committee receives testimony in support of this proposal. All sector stakeholders are encourage to submit written testimony by email to Committee staff Derek Dunlea and James Ostis with the subject line “Written Testimony – TACD 9/28/21”. Our advocacy partners MASSCreative have developed an advocacy toolkit to help you engage with the Committee and your legislators in support of S. 2246.

Testimony S.2256, An Act to rebuild the Commonwealth’s cultural future

Michael J. Bobbitt, Executive Director, Mass Cultural Council

Good morning, Chair Kennedy, Chair Fiola, and through you to the Members. It is a pleasure to join the Committee for your first public hearing of the session.

For the record, my name is Michael J. Bobbitt, and I serve as the Executive Director of the Mass Cultural Council. Mass Cultural Council is your independent state agency charged with promoting excellence, inclusion, education, and diversity in the cultural sector. I am here to testify in favor of Senate Bill 2246, An Act to rebuild the Commonwealth’s cultural future, sponsored by Chair Kennedy.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for your leadership on this critical economic issue.

I joined the Agency seven months ago, in February, just short of the one-year mark for the pandemic in Massachusetts. In this short time, we have had much opportunity to discuss and strategize together about the economic crisis the Commonwealth’s cultural sector is trying to climb out of, all of which was caused by the pandemic. I am grateful for the Committee’s collective leadership, vision, and partnership on behalf of Massachusetts’ artists and cultural organizations.

Throughout the pandemic Mass Cultural Council surveyed artists and nonprofit cultural organizations five times to document and understand the economic impacts of COVID. In March 2021, one year after the pandemic first brought cancellations and closures to Massachusetts, we released dire survey data reporting economic crisis throughout the cultural sector:

  • 981 cultural organizations reported a loss of $588.3M in revenue
  • 2,951 artists, teaching artists, humanists, and scientists reported $30.4M in lost personal income
  • 30,009 cultural sector jobs were impacted

This striking dataset makes sense, because in March of 2020, in the earliest days of COVID, cultural organizations were among the first to close…and we are now finding that they are the last to fully reopen. Further, I am ever mindful that our data was collected only from those who filled out the surveys, and did not include the for-profit cultural sector. So, as dire as these figures are, we know that the actual impact of the pandemic across the sector was far greater.

S.2246 directs a minimum of $200 million from the state’s ARPA funds to the cultural sector for COVID relief. By establishing the Massachusetts Cultural Economy COVID-19 Recovery Fund and seeding it with these federal mitigation dollars, Mass Cultural Council would provide COVID relief and stabilization grants to cultural organizations, both nonprofit and for profit, as well as individual creative workers.

I think one of the most equitable and inclusive points about S. 2246 is that it directs the Agency to consider racial diversity and equity, geographic diversity, and programmatic diversity within the cultural sector in this grant making. The legislation also prioritizes economic need, and recipients’ economic impact in terms of job creation and tourism spending prior to March 2020.

Further, these grants would provide much-needed relief to the whole cultural sector: individual artists, cultural nonprofits, and for-profit cultural organizations.

This legislation has the full endorsement of Mass Cultural Council, and enjoys the support of 61 co-sponsors – 30.5% of the General Court – from both Chambers, both parties, and hailing from every region of the Commonwealth. This again makes sense, as culture is celebrated in every Massachusetts community.

However, S. 2246 is not the only state proposal seeking COVID relief for the sector. As the Committee is aware, in June the Massachusetts COVID-19 Cultural Impact Commission, chaired by Senator Kennedy and Rep. Fiola, filed its report, calling for the investment of $575 million in ARPA funds into the cultural sector. The Commission envisioned grant programs, administered by Mass Cultural Council, to support the following important rebuilding needs:

  • Create Recovery and Reopening Grant Programming – $375M
  • Invest in a Statewide Marketing Plan – $40M
  • Invest in Infrastructure and Equipment Upgrades – $60M
  • Programming to Encourage Workforce Development, Youth Education, and Community Development – $100M

Mass Cultural Council proudly participated in the Commission’s process and endorses its findings. And we are ready to invest these much-needed ARPA dollars to support artists and cultural organizations.

As such, today I urge the Committee to release Senate Bill 2246 with a favorable report, as amended. I believe it’s critical that our advocacy on behalf of the sector evolves as new information and data becomes available, and that that our proposals be consistent. Therefore, I ask the Committee to amend the legislation by striking from the second line of Section 1 “$200 million” and inserting in its place $575 million”.

This would align S. 2246 with the findings of the COVID-19 Cultural Impact Commission, the Agency’s COVID impact survey results, and provide support to artists, nonprofit and for-profit cultural organizations.

At the end of the day, it might not be this individual piece of legislation that makes it to the Governor’s desk. However, there will soon be an ARPA-related debate before you. Mass Cultural Council urges the Committee to take every action to ensure robust investment is made in the cultural sector. Please use S. 2246 and the COVID Impact Commission’s report as your roadmap.

As Governor Baker noted this summer while in the Berkshires, Massachusetts’ tourism and cultural sectors are vital to the fabric of the Commonwealth, and will continue to be an important part of our economic recovery in the coming months.”

We know the state economy cannot fully recover without arts and culture. And our sister-sector, tourism, will also not flourish if visitors are greeted by struggling or, even worse, shuttered cultural venues throughout Massachusetts.

These past few months I have enjoyed the opportunity to accept invitations from cultural organizations, legislators, and arts leaders to visit different regions of the state and meet with our stakeholders to see what they are doing, facing, and fearing. Whether I am in Central or MetroWest, North of Boston, in Western Mass, Fall River or on the Cape, several commonalities have emerged, and I thought I would end by sharing them with you today:

  • The cultural assets of Massachusetts are more impressive than I ever imagined. The Commonwealth is filled with organizations that are the “first”, “original”, “only”, “premiere”, and “historic”, but sadly under-resourced, and often their collections or structures are housed in facilities in need of upkeep and repair.
  • This makes sense, as most of the arts organizations I speak to face significant and severe capital improvement needs, forcing artistic and executive leadership to spend much of their time on facilities management rather than artistic programming and community engagement.
  • Many organizations rely heavily on volunteerism to successfully operate, rather than simply engaging volunteers to support programmatic needs.
  • The Commonwealth’s growth as a competitive market to attract businesses, tourists, students, and families can be enhanced by the cultural sector, resulting in more revenue for the state, but only with a more robust investment in the cultural assets and a strategic campaign to market them.
  • The investment proposed in S. 2246 will enable Mass Cultural Council to deploy ARPA funds across the cultural sector. We will be able to address many of these “low hanging fruits” – and the state will immediately see a return on its investments.

Thank you for this time before you today. Again, thank you to Chair Kennedy for your leadership on this matter, but also to Chair Fiola, and all the Members of the Committee who have been such strong and passionate partners with Mass Cultural Council. Together we will continue to advance the power of culture across the Commonwealth.

I am happy to answer any questions from the panel.

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