Arts Commentary: The Show Won’t Go On. Now What?

By Noah Schaffer

Wall Street is getting a $1.5 trillion bailout (and counting). As usual, the arts, despite being a key economic engine, will not be so lucky.

The coronavirus — the pandemic means artists and venues will face weeks and quite possibly months with zero revenue.

It started as a slow drip: a few shows on college campuses were postponed out of concern about the coronavirus. Then came word of major festivals and gatherings being halted. Now a local and national state of emergency has resulted in the cancellation of nearly every kind of arts event—performing, visual, and cinematic, from the biggest arenas to the most humble avant-garde jazz spaces. Providence, RI, has put the kibosh on all live music for two weeks. In Massachusetts, Governor Baker has banned gatherings of more than 250 people, but many far smaller venues have also opted to close their doors for now.

Boston artists and the organizations that connect them with audiences have made it through winter and summer storms, terrorism, economic downturns, travel bans, and gentrification. But life in the time of coronavirus means artists and venues will face weeks and quite possibly months with zero revenue. Film festivals and theater companies that spent a year preparing their offerings (and paying out expenses) will have to start again from scratch. What’s more, self-employed members of the arts community who pay the rent by slinging drinks to tourists, teaching, or offering their extra room via Airbnb will be doubly hit.

Wall Street is getting a $1.5 trillion bailout (and counting). As usual, the arts, despite being a key economic engine, will not be so lucky. The MFA and the BSO each have endowments of hundreds of millions — they’re not going anywhere (and will hopefully not gobble up what meager relief funds will be doled out by the state). Organizations affiliated with wealthy colleges and universities will be just fine too. Staying alive will be much more of a challenge for smaller organizations who are reeling from emptied schedules while at the same time trying to convince customers and sponsors to commit to summer events at a time of enormous uncertainty.

It will be up to the individual arts consumer and lover to make sure that culture survives the coronavirus. Here are a few things you can do while homebound:

  1. Don’t get a refund. If you have a ticket for a now-canceled show presented by a nonprofit organization, see if you can hold onto it until the event is rescheduled, or offer to donate the cost of the ticket back to the presenter.


  1. Remember recorded music. The near-complete elimination of live music is like the last leg of a rather wobbly stool being sawed off. All but the wealthiest musicians have already seen a near-total decline in income from the CDs they were once able to sell at gigs. Many independent musicians report that annual streaming income doesn’t even reach three figures. Vinyl, while hip again, is difficult and expensive to produce. If you were going to see a show by an artist you like, see if you can still buy some physical or digital recorded music directly from their label or website, from an online independent retailer, or from sites like Bandcamp and Artistshare.


  1. Enjoy it at home. It’s great that YouTube has hours and hours of recorded live music, but only their advertisers and their parent company Google profit from all the views. Livestreams from closed studios are likely to start popping up — make sure you throw those artists a few bucks if you tune in. (For example, Passim is going to try to stream canceled shows in hopes that people donate.) And if you were looking to learn or improve your own skills, see if an artist you like is willing to offer Skype lessons.


  1. Buy a gift certificate or a membership. While they can’t sell tickets to events that won’t happen, many organizations are still offering memberships, gift certificates, or tickets for shows a few months out. Besides providing needed revenue, it will tell them that someone will be in the audience once the doors can reopen.


  1. Support an artist fund, and make sure artists know what resources are available. The Record Company, a Boston-area nonprofit, has set up a fund for artists who’ve had gigs canceled due to COVID-19. You can make a donation or submit an application for relief here.

The Boston Mayor’s Office of Arts & Culture has established an Artist Relief Fund. It is prioritizing lower-income artists who have not received a city grant this year. You can read about the fund and apply for relief here. And, of course, there will surely be a spike in GoFundMe and crowd-sourcing requests. Give generously, give intelligently, and we’ll be able to enjoy the arts once more.

Editor’s Note: I agree with all Noah has written above. If this shutdown is prolonged it may mean the end for some arts organizations and the careers of performers plying their trade on the middle to lower end of the cultural ladder. COVID-19 should make cities and large grant organizations realize, finally, that they need to do more to support smaller arts organizations, performers, and troupes. Small is beautiful. And not just during health emergencies. Let’s fight to make these opportunities permanent. Independence should be celebrated. Other links that offer information or possibilities for financial assistance:

Americans for the Arts Blog: Arts and Culture Sector Can Prepare for the Coronavirus in the United States

Arts Ready: Preparing for the Potential Impact of the Coronavirus

City of Boston Small Business Survey

Mass Cultural Council COVID-19 Resources

Event Safety Alliance Webinar

Boston Singers’ Relief Fund

Theatre Community Benevolent Fund

— Bill Marx

Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.


  1. Jerry on March 14, 2020 at 2:49 pm

    Excellent article on the state of the arts in the era of the #trumpvirus.
    Informative, as well! Im sharing everywhere. Get the word out. Life without music would b flat.

  2. Kathleen Stone on March 17, 2020 at 5:54 pm

    I agree it’s important to find new creative ways to support the arts. That’s true for many reasons, including their importance to the economy. I was not aware of a $1.5 trillion bailout to “Wall Street.” Can you explain?

    • Bill Marx on March 17, 2020 at 11:15 pm

      I think this is what Noah had in mind. From a March 17th Truthdig piece titled “Why America Can’t Respond to the Current Crisis” by Robert Reich:

      “Late last week the Fed made $1.5 trillion available to banks at the slightest hint of difficulties making trades. No one batted an eye.”

      • Kathleen Stone on March 18, 2020 at 6:18 pm

        Thanks for the response, and now I’ve checked the reference. It’s true that the funds are not going to artists, but it appears they are short term loans to banks intended to keep our financial system liquid.

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