Economy Of The Berkshires In Western Massachusetts Suffers From Arts Cancellations

Jun 30, 2020
Originally published on June 30, 2020 10:37 pm

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tourism has been decimated by coronavirus closures. And that's been especially tough in areas that rely heavily on seasonal dollars, like the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR reports on the region's creative economy now shut down by the pandemic.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: During a normal summer, 350,000 visitors set up blankets and coolers on the lawn at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox to hear music in the open air.

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SHEA: Tanglewood's buildings and stages sit on the grounds of a former estate wealthy patrons donated to the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1936. The town was home to an iron foundry and a glass factory, now long closed. And the symphony's CEO and president Mark Volpe says the Berkshires have a legacy of manufacturing and job loss.

MARK VOLPE: Back in the late '40s, '50s, even well into the '60s, GE alone employed 11, 12,000 people. They now employ a grand total of zero.

SHEA: Most of Tanglewood's 1,000 part-time and seasonal employees have been laid off, and a limited, digital version of the festival is available online. Volpe says the festival usually brings in more than 100 million tourist dollars each summer.

VOLPE: We're not in a major market that has a diverse economy, you know? We are the economy.

SHEA: Tanglewood is part of a now shut-down ecosystem of arts institutions that anchors the region's economy, including the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and a slew of museums.

JOE THOMPSON: Mass MoCA is sort of a poster child for the creative economy.

SHEA: Joe Thompson directs Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams about 25 miles from Tanglewood. The sprawling museum occupies more than two dozen shuttered 19th century mill buildings. Thompson says the idea for the museum was born at a devastating time in the 1980s.

THOMPSON: North Adams found itself at the top of every wrong list - teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, domestic violence.

SHEA: Unemployment also soared after the component company Sprague Electric left North Adams, taking 3,000 jobs with it.

JOHN BARRETT: That's when I started to realize that arts and culture, that was economic development.

SHEA: Massachusetts state Representative John Barrett was North Adams' mayor back then. Since it opened in 1999, Mass MoCA has grown to attract nearly 300,000 visitors to the region each year, adding $52 million to the Berkshires economy. Now the museum is closed and has laid off most of its staff.

BARRETT: Who would have ever thought it would be a pandemic that would come along and really deal the main part of our economy this crushing blow?

SHEA: Barrett co-filed two emergency bills in the state legislature to help cultural organizations, along with the interdependent food and hospitality sectors.

STEPHEN LAWRENCE: My name is Stephen Lawrence. I'm the owner of a Spice Root restaurant, and my restaurant is running almost 18 years.

SHEA: Lawrence says this year is going to be rough without the actors, stage crews and hordes of fans who attend the Tony Award-winning Williamstown Theater Festival near his restaurant.

LAWRENCE: I didn't lay off anybody because we are just like a family, so we have to support each other, you know?

SHEA: Lawrence's restaurant is doing takeout, but his food stall at Mass MoCA summer music events never got going. Alexandra Oster co-owns A-OK Berkshire Barbeque, one of the year-round retail businesses on the museum's campus, and she foresees a revenue drop of 30% without the visiting art and music fans.

ALEXANDRA OSTER: The day we got the email from MoCA saying they were closing, I remember just walking into dry storage and just sitting on the ground and just - I cried. I was like, it's over.

SHEA: Oster says takeout is keeping her afloat. But like many small businesses, the money made in summer gets her through the quieter seasons. Phased reopening is underway in Massachusetts. But Eric Kerns, who co-owns Tourists, a 2-year-old hotel in North Adams, says while his team is getting ready, they're being cautious.

ERIC KERNS: We think about those rooms and meals taxes that we collect and how they go into supporting the city. But we also feel an incredible obligation to be protective of this community that has spectacularly low infection rates.

SHEA: Kerns says he and his partners want to be on the right side of history rather than contributing to a coronavirus surge that takes North Adams and the Berkshires back to phase zero.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.