Slowly, Massachusetts is coming alive. Beginning this week, restaurants are allowed to seat diners for indoor meals. Nail salons, tattoo parlors and athletic trainers can once again welcome customers, and offices can expand their capacity from 25% to 50%.
“Reopening Massachusetts is working,” Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters in a hope-tinged press briefing last Friday. “Businesses are coming back, and people are regaining that sense of purpose that was lost.”
That many businesses were able to hold on this long is a testament to smart management, government assistance and customer loyalty. All those diners buying takeout from local restaurants, and adding an exorbitant tip to their bill, certainly made a difference.
Helping keep Main Street businesses afloat during the coronavirus pandemic has become an ongoing source of civic pride.
In the weeks and months to come, however, it is apparent other cherished local institutions, many with histories dating back decades if not centuries, will need the same support.
In March, COVID-19 forced museums across the state to close their doors, and nowhere outside of Boston has the effect been more keenly felt than in Essex County, which counts dozens of institutions from the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy to Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester to the Witch Museum in Salem.
The closings came at the worst possible time for museums, which in spring are usually filled with children and teens on school field trips. By May, the New England Museum Association reported, the region’s institutions had missed out on visits by roughly 280,000 pre-kindergarten to 12th grade students, and had to cancel plans to bring outreach programs to another 62,000.
The losses go beyond ticket sales, the association said in a study released last month.
“Events and site rentals, which are a significant portion of many museum’s budgets, continue to be canceled or pushed back to 2021 or beyond,” Meg Winikates, the association’s director of engagement, wrote. “Companies may have diminished funds for corporate sponsorships of exhibits and events. Private donations are likely to suffer. ‘Blockbuster’ exhibits and annual festivals will have attendance caps or simply see diminished attendance due to visitor anxieties.”
By May, small to mid-sized museums across New England were reporting losses that averaged $190,000, or a total of $21 million. As June stretches into July, that number has no doubt grown, even as institutions used staffing cuts to keep costs low.
Earlier this month, Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum announced it was laying off or furloughing 15% of its 260-person workforce. And all staff making more than $110,000 a year have taken pay reductions ranging from 10% to 25%.
“We have been able to keep our staffing level whole, without furloughs or layoffs, over the last four months during the museum’s closure, but at this juncture, this is no longer sustainable,” said Brian Kennedy, the museum’s CEO and director.
Local museums, from giants like the PEM to more modest groups like the Andover Center for History and Culture, aren’t just part of the regional economic engine. They are the keepers of our heritage.
The Cape Ann Museum, for example, stewards everything from the Great Republic, the sloop Gloucester’s favorite son Howard Blackburn used to sail solo across the Atlantic, to the work of the luminist painter Fitz Henry Lane to the black-and-white photographs of legendary Gloucester Daily Times photographer Charlie Lowe.
Those museums have fought to remain vital during lockdown, offering a bounty of online exhibits, working with local schools on lesson plans and planning for a socially distanced reopening in Phase 3 of the state’s plan, which could come as early as next month.
When those doors do open again, it’s vital that these institutions receive the same support as the restaurants, craft breweries and mom-and-pop stores have seen over the past several months, both in state and federal assistance and local patronage.
Their service to the community isn’t an add-on. It’s a vital part of defining who we are.