The Puppet Showplace Theater

The Puppet Showplace Theatre: Connecting During COVID-19 

Community is critical to how Puppet Showplace Theater approaches its work. Prior to the pandemic-related cancellation of live performances and workshops, Puppet Showplace welcomed anywhere from 200 to 1000 people a week from young children up to adults. Losing that daily interaction has been “a big loss” not just for Puppet Showplace employees, says the theater’s Artistic Director Roxanna Myhrum, but for members of the community as well. 

“Puppetry is for everyone,” Myhrum says, noting that it unlocks the “human capacity to imagine and build worlds of infinite possibilities.” 

Dealing with the financial losses from the pandemic have been equally challenging. A series of grants, government relief programs, and contributions from over 1,000 individuals have kept the organization going and it has been able to continue paying artists, something that Myhrum is justifiably proud of, considering the substantial losses that individual artists have sustained over the last year

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March 19 MASSCreative Virtual Policy and Action Webinar

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The American Rescue Plan Act: What it Means for Arts and Culture in Massachusetts

On March 6, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) into law. The $1.9 Trillion relief plan includes a number of provisions that will support the creative sector’s recovery in the Commonwealth. Here’s a breakdown and additional resources to help you make sense of the law.

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MASSCreative Lauds $200M Cultural Sector Stabilization Fund

Artists, Creative Workers and Cultural Organizations of all Sizes, Representing Residents throughout the Commonwealth, Unite in Support of this COVID-19 Recovery Bill 

BOSTON, March 1, 2021—MASSCreative announces today that it supports “An Act to Rebuild the Commonwealth’s Cultural Future,” which would create a $200 million stabilization fund for the state’s cultural sector. The money for the fund would be allocated from any federal dollars Massachusetts receives this year for COVID-19 recovery efforts. The bill was filed by State Sen. Ed Kennedy in response to immense pandemic-related need among arts, cultural, and creative organizations across the Commonwealth. 

“The state’s ultimate economic recovery is tied to the health of large cultural institutions like the Tanglewood and the New England Aquarium, alongside smaller, community-based organizations like Elevated Thought, Creative Collective, the Makanda Project, and the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus,” said MASSCreative Executive Director Emily Ruddock. “These organizations across the state are in urgent need of financial support to weather the on-going pandemic and MASSCreative is grateful that Chairman Kennedy is leading efforts in Massachusetts to create a COVID-19 recovery and stabilization plan for the creative cultural organizations that drive our economy.” 

“The arts and cultural sector is a vital component of the Massachusetts economy and is essential to the fabric of life in the Commonwealth,” said Sen. Kennedy, who is Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. “The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the cultural sector, and this rescue package is an essential step in restoring the Massachusetts cultural economy.” 

The bill would establish a Massachusetts Cultural Economy COVID-19 Recovery Fund that will be administered by the Mass Cultural Council. The funds will be disbursed through grants to cultural organizations, both non-profit and for profit, as well as individual creative workers. Grants will consider racial diversity and equity, geographic diversity, and programmatic diversity within the cultural sector. They will also prioritize economic need and recipients’ economic impact in terms of job creation and tourism spending prior to March 2020. 

“The Commonwealth’s economy cannot bounce back from the devastating impacts of this pandemic until our cultural sector is authorized to safely reengage with the public and fully resume its once booming activity,” said Michael J. Bobbitt, Executive Director of the Mass Cultural Council, which has collected detailed financial data from arts organizations documenting the effects of the pandemic. “Robust public investment is urgently needed to catalyze long-term recovery efforts to stabilize our sector. This will have a tremendous effect on the overall state economy. We are grateful to Chairman Kennedy for his leadership and vision and recognize the powerful advocacy MASSCreative will execute to build statewide support for this proposal.” 

Since last March, nearly 900 nonprofit and municipal cultural organizations, which represent a sliver of the state’s robust creative economy, have reported pandemic-related losses of over $483 million and individual working creatives, many of whom are self-employed, have lost over $20 million in personal income. Organizations led by Black Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC) have been especially hard hit

Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Dawn M. Simmons, co-founders of The Front Porch Arts Collective said that cultural entrepreneurs of color are struggling under the weight of two pandemics—the coronavirus and systemic racism. 

“We’ve lost loved ones, homes, jobs, and the feeling of safety and acceptance in our society. But many BIPOC-led arts organizations are small and in their early phases of development and were under-resourced to begin with,” Parent said. 

Simmons added: “We cannot leave these organizations to fend for themselves. They need impactful public investment to survive these challenging times and then thrive in the post-pandemic world we are all working toward.” 

Although the proposed $200 million relief fund would not begin to cover the extent of what’s been lost over the past year, arts and cultural leaders across the state are calling for its passage. 

“The pandemic-related financial losses absorbed by museums and other cultural facilities across the Commonwealth have had adverse ripple effects on their communities, local economies, schools, and citizens,” said Dan Yaeger, Executive Director of the New England Museum Association. “This bill will help mitigate the damage and allow cultural institutions to resume the important role they play in people’s lives.” 

"Financial relief is essential to ensuring that the Williamstown Theatre Festival can continue to serve as a vital economic driver for our region, a creative home for our country's most renowned theatre artists, and a generative force for the entire American theatre industry," said Mandy Greenfield, Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. 

“There has been almost no financial support for independent venues that host live events,” said JJ Gonson of the coalition Save MA Stages. “Relief now will mean the difference between being able to reopen versus permanently closing. Live performance brings people together for joyful and fulfilling experiences. If the places that used to host live music, dance, theater, poetry readings, and so much more aren’t there once it’s safe to reopen, our communities will be even worse off than they already are.” 

As we enter into a period of rebuilding and recovery our industry will need inclusive and swift action from our Commonwealth's elected leaders, which is why we support Sen. Kennedy’s bill,” said Thomas Whelan, President of the Massachusetts Live Events Coalition. “Without public investment, organizations that make up the state’s creative sector will not survive this prolonged shutdown of arts and culture.” 

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, arts and cultural organizations have been vital to sustaining personal and community connections. The Makanda Project, a 13-piece jazz ensemble, carefully choreographed live events for small audiences that were streamed online to a wider audience of fans at home. In the fall, the Worcester Chamber Music Society live streamed six concerts drawing 100 people per performance. The organization also maintained its program of free lessons in violin, viola, and cello to youth from impoverished neighborhoods by building online portals for parents and students. The Theatre Offensive wrote and staged two original plays and live streamed them to audiences. 

“Those of us who work in the arts do it not just for love of the discipline. We’re in it for the way art makes us feel and the connections we foster across communities,” said Boston Gay Men’s Chorus Executive Director Craig Coogan, whose organization launched [email protected] to keep its audiences engaged with one another over the last year. “All of these technical and artistic innovations we’ve seen throughout the pandemic have been lifelines for countless people suffering alone at home. But this work has been subsidized almost entirely by individuals. That’s not sustainable. Art is vital to the health and well-being of the public and it deserves public investment.”

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The Makanda Project

The Makanda Project: Connecting during COVID-19

Innovation and improvisation are the foundations of jazz, and versatility one of the greatest strengths of a jazz musician. It’s no surprise, then, that the Makanda Project, a 13-piece jazz ensemble, found a way to safely connect during the COVID-19 pandemic with carefully choreographed live events for small audiences that were streamed online to a wider audience of fans at home. 

This past summer and fall, the Makanda Project, which has performed free concerts in Roxbury since 2005, played four live shows at Bartlett Place that were broadcast in real time via Facebook Live. 

“We felt we were ‘threading a needle’—that there was a way to present the music in the community during the summer months, but that it had to be done just right so that we didn't jeopardize anyone's safety, including our own,” said John Kordalewski, the Makanda Project’s band leader and concert organizer/producer. “We felt it was our job, as artists in the community, to try to figure this out. In the end, we felt we had found our small opening and made the most of it, which was gratifying.”

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Worcester Chamber Music Society

Worcester Chamber Music Society: Connecting during COVID-19

The Worcester Chamber Music Society (WCMS) played its last major concert March 1, 2020. A crowd of 1500 filled the Hanover Theatre in the city’s downtown for the organization’s annual free famil concert. The performance featured Saint-Saen’s “A Carnival of Animals,” a collaboration between WCMS’ Neighborhood Strings, a music program for underserved youth, and the Hanover Theatre Conservatory Youth Ballet Company that saw 85 kids onstage sharing their talent with their community. 

“It was a huge event,” recalled Tracy Kraus, WCMS executive director and flautist. 

Days later, WCMS’s season came to an abrupt halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the organization barely missed a beat in ensuring their programming would continue to reach their students and their audiences. 

“The first thing we talked about was, how can we stay connected to our audience and to our community?” said Kraus. “For the last 15 years, it’s been our mission to keep people connected, and we're constantly exploring  new ways to do that. 

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Action Alert: Urge your legislators to prioritize arts and culture in the FY22 Budget

On Wednesday January 27, 2021, Gov. Charlie Baker released his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2022. In it, he recommends allocating $16.3 million for the Mass Cultural Council, which would be 10 percent less than the Mass Cultural Council’s current budget. 

While we appreciate that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts continues to experience profound challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are disappointed with a proposed budget that would require a 10 percent reduction in funding from the Mass Cultural Council’s current $18.2 spending level. 

Throughout this pandemic, arts and cultural organizations have found creative ways to keep people connected, including virtual performances offered at no cost, outdoor performances, and free music, dance, and theatre instruction via Zoom for vulnerable youth. The connections forged by community arts non-profits throughout the pandemic have been absolutely vital to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health. It is clear arts and culture make a difference in the Commonwealth.

Non-profits of all sizes have done this work despite the pandemic-related devastation experienced by creative workers, artists, and arts and cultural organizations.  Arts and cultural nonprofits have collectively lost over $483 million since last March. Meanwhile, individual artists, teaching artists, and scientist/humanists have lost over $20 million in personal income. 

The annual allocation for the Mass Cultural Council represents the largest amount of public support for artists, creative workers and cultural nonprofits in the Commonwealth. A reduction to that public investment would be disasterous as we work to recover from the pandemic.

Let's share our support for a publicly supported arts and cultural sector with our legislators. As they begin to develop their FY22 budgets, we must urge them to prioritize a creative community that everyone in the Commonwealth can participate in and have access to. 

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Governor’s budget would cut funding for arts non-profits by over 10 percent

BOSTON, January 27, 2021—Today, Gov. Charlie Baker released his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2022. In it, he recommends allocating $16.3 million for the Mass Cultural Council, which would be 10 percent less than the Mass Cultural Council’s current budget. MASSCreative Executive Director Emily Ruddock issued the following statement in response: 

“We appreciate that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts continues to experience profound challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. But we are disappointed with a proposed budget that would require a 10 percent reduction in funding from the Mass Cultural Council’s current $18.2 spending level

“Throughout this pandemic, arts and cultural organizations have found creative ways to keep people connected, including virtual performances offered at no cost, outdoor performances, and free music, dance, and theatre instruction via Zoom for vulnerable youth. Non-profits of all sizes have done this work despite the pandemic-related devastation experienced by arts and cultural organizations that have collectively lost over $483 million since last March. Meanwhile, individual artists, teaching artists, and scientist/humanists have lost over $20 million in personal income. 

“The connections forged by community arts non-profits throughout the pandemic have been absolutely vital to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health. As we move forward with policy prescriptions for the post-pandemic world, community connections that foster well-being will be critical. And the non-profit arts and cultural sector will be key to those efforts. 

“We look forward to working with members of the House as the FY2022 budget process proceeds. We also look forward to sharing the ways in which art, creativity, and culture have been positively affecting constituents throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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The New Dawn Blooms As We Free It: Massachusetts arts leaders reflect on the inauguration and a conversation with the Biden-Harris transition team 

by Emily Ruddock and Harold Steward

Yesterday not only did we witness the inauguration of a new President of the United States -- we also witnessed how arts and culture are key to our country's most sacred ceremonies. In witnessing the powerful testimony of Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, we also wanted to take a moment and reflect on our recent conversation with the Biden-Harris transition team, one that offers hope and excitement for the future of our sector. 

Signaling an era of renewed federal support for the country’s arts and cultural sector, arts advocates from around the country met with members of the Biden-Harris Transition Team prior to the inauguration to discuss the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the urgent need for the agency to better meet the needs of artists, arts organizations, and the diverse communities they serve. 

We were proud to be among the roughly 50 arts advocates at the December 8 meeting between the transition team’s Arts Landing Team and Americans for the Arts' State Arts Action Network (SAAN), of which MASSCreative is a member. This is a new day for the arts in America—a dramatic departure from the Trump administration’s repeated attempts to abolish the NEA.

Broadly speaking, advocates called for the NEA to lead efforts to enact major structural change to our country’s arts infrastructure. We emphasized the need for an NEA that prioritizes inclusivity, equity, and access to the arts for all Americans; that fully integrates art, culture and creativity in communities across the country; that empowers creative workers and improves our residents’ health; enhances education for all of our students; encourages innovation within art forms; invests in research on the power, benefit and impact of the arts throughout the country; and considers arts and cultural grantmaking as a crucial investment in our shared future. 

If you’re familiar with the advocacy work that MASSCreative has done in concert with our member organizations across the Commonwealth, these goals may sound familiar to you. They’re much the same things we’ve been advocating for in Massachusetts. Our Create the Vote campaigns, for example, have elevated discussions about the benefits of arts and culture to our state’s economy, our education system, and the quality of life in our communities, with the goal of persuading policy makers and the public that investing in the arts is worth the money.

SAAN made the case for having the NEA at the table when it comes to the Biden administration’s domestic policy. Among the many things we spoke about, we prioritized asking for a senior staff position, or team, to oversee and develop inter-agency/administration relationships and action related to arts and cultural policy. Ideally, this position would be a career public service role rather than a political appointment that could be terminated by another administration. We also requested elevation of the role of the arts and the creative economy plays in the federal government through a cabinet or council-level position, which would level the playing field of authority with other agencies. 

Advocates shared stories with the transition team of the economic devastation artists and arts organizations are experiencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic and requested immediate action and financial resources to support them. 

Noting the 2020 resurgence in reckoning with the ways in which white supremacy permeates all sectors of society, we urged the Biden-Harris administration to take advantage of this moment to call for “visionary change” at the NEA. Such a change would prioritize grant-making based on innovation, imagination, entrepreneurship, and the specific needs of communities. This would make grants more accessible to artists and organizations working in underserved communities, where they often focus on using art, culture, and creativity as conduits for building community and improving health and well-being. 

Similarly, we asked that the NEA under a Biden-Harris administration prioritize diverse representation at every level of the agency, from NEA Council members and staff to panel participants. Additionally, the NEA should focus supporting BIPOC arts, individuals, and organizations of all sizes across the country. 

By the end of the meeting, we felt hopeful about the future of the arts in America and the potential role it can play in our country’s economic recovery and in helping to heal communities across the country that are struggling with the fallout of the pandemic and our country’s on-going reckoning with white supremacy. 

But as we often say, political support for the arts doesn’t just happen on its own. We must keep on advocating. 

As part of our ongoing efforts to center artists, creative workers and cultural organizations in our shared advocacy, The Theater Offensive and MASSCreative are partnering with The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture to host the People’s State of the Union 2021, February 1 - March 1, 2021. Join fellow artists, cultural advocates and creative leaders from across the nation to share our stories and visions for a more just future, and to confront the interlocking crises of systemic racism, eviction, poverty, access to healthcare, and more laid bare by COVID-19. While our communities have suffered this past year, we also believe that our communities hold the keys to our survival. 

We hope you’ll join us. 

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The Arts Extension Service & Amherst Ballet

The Arts Extension Service at UMASS Amherst (AES) is a national arts service organization working to serve the arts through education, research, publications and consulting. It is the leading provider of Arts Management education and training in the U.S., offering the country’s only online Arts Management bachelor's degree, in addition to three online Arts Management Core, Professional and Leadership certificates and two Certificates in Arts Management for students on campus. AES also offers publications, research services, and training programs for state, regional, and local arts agencies. AES’ Arts Entrepreneurship Initiative, serves students and faculty as well as the region’s many artists and other creative businesses.

As one of few organizations dedicated to supporting the creative community, AES has served as an important clearinghouse of pandemic-related funding resources, employment opportunities, and other information for artists, venues, and arts organizations, which are suffering devastating financial losses due to health and safety restrictions on large indoor gatherings and live performances.

Meanwhile, students past and present are drawing on what they’ve learned in AES programs to continue creating, entertaining, and helping (mostly virtual) audiences make sense of this moment. Take, for example, Madeleine Bonn, an AES student and artistic director of Amherst Ballet.

Bonn was just months into her tenure as artistic director when the pandemic hit. In a recent interview, she credited her AES studies with helping her to remain grounded and for inspiring her creation of the The Social Dis-Dance Project, which commissioned short dance videos from dancers, choreographers, and artists to express their experience of the crisis and the social distancing orders that aimed to curb it.

“I missed dancing and being creative and I also missed connecting with people socially and I realized that a lot of people were going through the same thing,” Bonn said of the project’s genesis in an interview at the start of this video compilation of submissions. “So I really wanted to give mainly my students a way to stay creative and engage with dance and also a way for them to connect with their peers.”

She was surprised when artists from around the globe submitted videos for the project. Bonn’s lighthearted offering, “Pas de Toilet Paper” won a third place prize in the Music/Dance category of Amherst Center Cultural District’s Artist Contest.

In June, Bonn and Amherst Ballet’s board president created the short piece “The Butterfly Effect” which students performed virtually while in-person classes were on hiatus. Now, Amherst Ballet is offering both socially distanced in-person classes (limited to seven students per class, with masks) and virtual access via Zoom.

“Students have been enthusiastic to return to the studio and I feel there is a sense of renewed appreciation for being able to dance in a beautiful space, as well as gratitude for the connection we form with others in doing so,” said Bonn.

Aside from her work at Amherst Ballet, Bonn’s AES coursework this year will include Creative Community Leadership, which teaches students how to use the arts and the creative process as tools for social change, and the skills to do effective creative community collaboration and partnership development. It’s a timely subject as the pandemic and events like the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police have exposed and exacerbated racial and economic injustice, healthcare inequities and other systemic breakdowns.

As AES Director Dee Boyle-Clapp stated in welcoming students back to classes in the fall, each of us has an opportunity “in this moment of extreme change” to make an impact and keep each other “healthy and connected.”

“This is when the arts shine brightest,” Boyle-Clapp wrote, ”As they always have, artists and performers have brought unity and solace to people across the nation and around the world, and while many organizations are physically closed, arts managers have worked to connect the arts to audiences, no matter where they are located. Especially now, while we are physically distant, the arts connect us.”

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