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For some arts venues, a lifeline

Save Our Stages money included in the government’s COVID relief package buoys the hopes of local theaters and clubs

Michael J. Bobbitt, artistic director of New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, says an infusion of federal money would be “huge for us.”
Michael J. Bobbitt, artistic director of New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, says an infusion of federal money would be “huge for us.”Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

For the past week, club owners and theater operators across the region have allowed themselves to feel something that’s been in decidedly short supply since the pandemic forced them closed in March: hope.

The pandemic relief bill, passed by Congress last week and signed into law by President Trump Sunday, includes $15 billion to support independent music venues, theaters, talent agencies, and nonprofit museums — a critical lifeline for an industry decimated by COVID-19.

“I can see a light at the end of this, and it’s no longer a train,” said Katherine Tallman, executive director and CEO of Coolidge Corner Theatre. “This is the first good news since everything happened. I mean, it’s been all downhill since March.”

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Like many of her peers, Tallman spent much of the past week tracking down information on the relief package, gaming out when the theater could apply, and how much aid it might expect. And while some details remain fuzzy, this much is clear: Eligible organizations may receive grants equal to 45 percent of their 2019 gross earned revenue, capped at $10 million.

“It’s amazing,” said Tallman, who now has around 10 people on payroll, down from 55. “It’s not going to create a huge surplus, but it sure takes the pressure off.”

Few sectors of the country’s economy have been so devastated by the pandemic as theaters and live music halls. Many venues, facing zero revenue and mounting bills, have been forced to lay off or furlough most of their staff. Some local stages have already gone out of business, and according to a survey by the National Independent Venue Association, some 90 percent of live music venues are in danger of closing permanently without federal help.

For those venues that have managed to hang on, the federal assistance, originally known as the Save Our Stages Act, could make a huge difference, helping to pay loans, rent, payroll, and other business costs.

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“It means we’re going to be able to be open and serve the public once the vaccine is rolled out,” said Frank Poindexter, general manager at Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club in the South End. “We had no revenue. We’ve had to take on debt through no fault of our own. This is going to be a major part of us being able to do what we do.”

At the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, artistic director Michael J. Bobbitt said the federal aid would be “huge for us.”

“It’s going to allow us to meet our budget goals, which is tied to keeping my whole staff employed,” said Bobbitt, who was recently named incoming executive director of the Mass Cultural Council. “My colleagues around the state will feel the exact same way, just knowing there might be $100,000 to $200,000 coming to keep things going, so that when everything clears up, we can start really doing what we do best.”

But while venue owners and arts leaders hailed the stimulus, questions remain as the Small Business Administration hammers out application details and other guidelines. To be eligible, independent operators (as opposed to publicly traded corporations) must be able to demonstrate they’ve lost at least 25 percent of their gross earned revenue. After that, the grants are being made available in stages: Venues that have suffered a 90 percent drop in revenue can apply during the first two weeks, followed by those that have lost 70 percent during weeks three and four. No more than 80 percent of the funds can be awarded in the first four weeks, after which any eligible entity may apply. This will be followed by a second round of supplemental grants.

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Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company, said the application tiers may put cultural nonprofits like his at the back of the line.

“It’s really designed for those who don’t have contributed revenue,” said Maso, who added that many nonprofits have stayed afloat with increased donations. “It could be that we’re down to 20 percent of the funds by the time nonprofits get to it.”

The relief package also contains another round of funding for Paycheck Protection Program loans, though venues can’t receive both types of funds.

“It’s a great thing, but we have to make a decision,” said Maso. “Either way, it’s enormously helpful.”

Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., president and CEO of the Boch Center, said his organization would try to qualify for the first round of funding, which he said could result in a $10 million grant.

That would be a major bulwark for the arts organization that operates the Wang and Shubert theaters, but Spaulding said the Boch Center would still be facing major losses.

“It’s not like we’re turning on the spigots and hiring everybody back,” said Spaulding, who said he was down from 50 full-time employees to a staff of 15. “If this thing goes on till next September . . . we’re probably going to be out some $40 million in earned revenue.”

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Bill Blumenreich, who helms the neighboring Wilbur Theatre, said that while he doubted he’d get the full $10 million, he “could never get enough money to make me whole.”

“I’ve lost millions of dollars out of my pocket, but then I’ve lost millions of dollars that we could have made,” said Blumenreich. “What it’s going to mean is I’m going to lose that much less money than I would have lost.”

Blumenreich added that the economic pain could be prolonged when theaters finally do reopen, as operators will have to build up their business again with a wary public. And that’s to say nothing of public health measures that may require theaters to operate at reduced capacity.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the reopen,” he said. “If everything goes right, we should be open at full capacity by, let’s say, next October. That puts you out of business for way over a year and a half.”

And while the federal infusion will go a long way toward buttressing independent venues and performing arts organizations during their pandemic-induced hibernation, many are looking toward the future, when they’ll have to bring back production staff well in advance of actually presenting shows or producing plays. Similarly, touring shows could take months to get fully back on the road and into theaters, all of which means increased costs and scant revenue as the venues come back online.

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“It’s sort of an initial funding round for a startup in some ways,” said the Huntington’s Maso. “It’s going to cost as much to produce a play, and there’s no way we’re going to have the same revenue.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.