Massachusetts commission to recommend $600 million in federal aid for cultural sector

A panel of lawmakers and industry leaders is poised to recommend that Massachusetts spend $600 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to help the arts and culture sector rebound from economic devastation during the pandemic.

With nearly $5 billion in stimulus funding in the state’s pocket, the COVID-19 Cultural Impact Commission wants Beacon Hill to use a big chunk to stabilize museums, performance venues, galleries, individual artists and more and to revitalize public interest in activities that supporters say drive major economic activity.

The panel’s draft report suggests directing slightly more than half of its request toward grants that would help cultural institutions navigate reopening and recovery. The rest would go toward workforce and community development, a marketing campaign to reinvigorate interest in arts events, and grants that organizations could use to improve facilities or expand virtual programming options.

The money derived from a federal law known as ARPA, commissioners wrote in their draft, stands as “a beacon of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.”

“While numerous grant and loan options have been made available, federal funds have not been dispensed at a rate at which institutions have needed the funds,” the commission wrote. “The troublesome application process and slow delivery have left businesses frustrated with nowhere else to turn. Organizations in the Commonwealth need this funding now.”

In the commission’s vision, the $600 million would be doled out over a four-year period.

The largest chunk, $325 million, would flow as grants to support recovery from COVID-19 and reopening, including $75 million available to for-profit venues, $100 million to non-profit organizations, $100 million to museums, visual arts and cultural heritage, and $50 million for individual practicing artists.

Another $100 million would go toward youth education and community or workforce development. Half of that would fund subsidized arts programming for the state’s children and adolescents, $25 million would go toward Mass Cultural Council-administered grants to “help cultural organizations and artists operate more efficiently and thrive professionally,” and $25 million would support public art and local incentives.

Lawmakers and industry leaders on the panel called for $60 million in ARPA funding to help arts and cultural organizations improve their infrastructure and equipment, extending into online programming or expanding existing facilities.

The group also suggested the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism fund a $40 million, four-year marketing campaign to promote arts and cultural destinations, including less-popular or well-known attractions.

Citing state data, the panel said tourism in Massachusetts annually generates $1.5 billion in state and local tax revenue and nearly $23 billion in travel-related expenditures that support the economy and 149,000 Bay State jobs. In 2019, tourism accounted for about 2.5 percent of the state’s GDP, the commission said.

“The creative and culture sector drives tourism to our communities and leads to major economic activity and investment in our cities and towns through its influence on nearby restaurants, hotels and other venues,” members wrote. “The economic impact of the prolonged closure of the creative and cultural sector will have lasting impacts in the hospitality and tourism sectors.”

Arts and cultural organizations were hit hard by forced shutdowns and changing consumer patterns due to COVID-19. A Mass Cultural Council report estimated that those organizations collectively felt $588 million in lost revenue over the first year of the pandemic, impacting 30,000 jobs.

Lawmakers have not decided how to use the bulk of about $5.3 billion that state government received in ARPA funding. The House and Senate rejected Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to spend $2.8 billion on housing, workforce development and other issues, then swept about $4.89 billion into a fund that legislative leaders say they will distribute after a public hearing process.

The Cultural Impact Commission’s request — which would represent about 12 percent of the money the Legislature dropped into that segregated fund — lands as an early salvo in the unfolding debate over how to carve up an unprecedented cash infusion.

Health care workers rallied this month, urging lawmakers to spend $500 million of the federal funding on retroactive premium pay for those who were on the front lines of treating COVID-19 patients during the pandemic. The plan outlined by the 1199 SEIU union would offer one-time bonuses of $1,000 to $3,000 to hundreds of thousands of direct care workers.

The Cultural Impact Commission, chaired by Rep. Carole Fiola of Fall River and Sen. Edward Kennedy of Lowell, will meet Tuesday to vote on the final report.

During a Monday meeting to review the 46-page draft, commissioners largely praised its conclusions and offered small language tweaks or called for broader follow-up studies on issues such as racial equity in the creative sector.

Magdalena Gomez, a poet, playwright and teaching artist who sat on the commission, said Monday that although the report is “beautiful” and she is “proud to sign off on it,” she believes it “doesn’t go far enough” to suggest ways to improve racial equity concerns.

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