New England Cultural Organizations Struggle to Survive in an Age of Social Distancing
In a dimly lit room, Roxie Zwicker is sitting on her black wing chair with a running white hem across the back rest. She’s dressed as a witch—in a black dress and a top hat with a rose tiara above its rim—red ribbons from the tiara dangle free on either side of her face. The window next to her looks out over a 200-year-old cemetery. The shelf behind her is decorated with skulls, divination crystals and candles. Zwicker, the founder of New England Curiosities, a ghost-tour and workshop organization in Portsmouth, N.H., is ready to start her Friday Night Frights and Ghost Stories with the story of the ghost bride from Maine. Her kohl-lined eyes shine, her teeth peer from behind her lips as they part into a smile, “Shall we start?”
The oddity reveals itself when you see a blue rectangular glint that keeps shining on her glasses as she animates through her story. Suddenly you realize that the sharp white light flashing across her face is from a computer screen.
It is 2020 and we are under “stay-at-home” advisories and orders. With social distancing guidelines in effect due to COVID-19, the stories Zwicker would’ve been telling on her tours across New England, she’s now telling to a computer screen during a Facebook Live event. She always dressed up in her live tours, so she was in no mood to give that up when she went virtual.
“It’s hard when you’re in this personal business where you have to be around people,” Zwicker says. Like many other tour and cultural organizations who have been forced to shut down their operations completely, Zwicker believes, “there’s no way to recover other than getting creative.”
Since the initial social distancing guidelines were imposed in New Hampshire on Mar. 16, Zwicker had to cancel her programs through April. “I was supposed to be at an event for retired Maine school teachers today [April 9], a group of 150 people,” she says, “to talk to them about the maritime history of the coast, and I am not there.”
She got many emails from tourists disappointed over missing out. Even before the pandemic, many of her followers had asked her to take her workshops online but she had never gotten around to doing it. When she decided to do ghost stories on Facebook, one of her main objectives was reaching her community.
“I really wanted to stay connected with the people that I won’t be seeing right now,” she says.
Zwicker has been interested in the supernatural since childhood. “After hearing the history on a tour, I would often ask the tour guides, ‘Was there a ghost story?’” she says. After listening to numerous haunted tales from across New England, she started collecting them.
Originally from Massachusetts, Zwicker moved to Portsmouth 20 years ago and started doing a few tours to raise funds for the maintenance of a local lighthouse. The overwhelming response prompted her to start doing tours around the seacoast in Portsmouth. Today she has nine tours in Portsmouth and Maine. She also does speaking engagements; workshops on gravestone history and symbolism; and tarot card and tea-leaves readings.
Zwicker says that her tours, even though they focus on ghost stories, give people a snapshot of a city and how it has evolved. Portsmouth, she says, has had its share of ups and downs. “It was a rough and gritty seaport at the turn of the 20th century,” she says. Today, tourists are curious about the absence of ports in Portsmouth. She informs them, “the ports were filled up to make parks.”
Cancelling her events have also hurt incoming revenue. Her Facebook Live videos are accessible for free and she has also reduced her workshop fees from $30 or $40 down to $10 or $20 to make it accessible to a larger audience. It uplifts her spirits when she hears from people in Tennessee, Maryland and Virginia appreciating her stories.
As social distancing has restrained people inside their homes, online activities have opened up doors to many possibilities. From online classes for school and college kids to virtual orchestras and concerts to online weddings, people have found a substitute for nearly every activity, with the upside of reaching a wider audience. While people come up with alternatives to fill the lull in social interaction, many organizations, such as New England Curiosities, find—even with online programs—that the virtual realm is not a replacement for in-person interaction.
“I am challenging myself on how to show a presentation. I go back to my archives and find pictures of all of these places and construct a scene,” Zwicker says. “Certainly, this is the time for that, but it is still not the same experience.”
With the objective of connecting thousands from across the country to one place, cultural organizations and tour companies are scrambling to make their content available online. Even as their efforts offer them a chance to remain relevant and visible during an economic slump, the threat of lasting financial impacts from the pandemic looms like a sword over their heads. With no signs of the imposed new way of life passing by anytime soon, what’s keeping these organizations going is the hope that their work can bring people together, or in the least bit—offer them a distraction.
The New England Aquarium, which shut its doors to visitors on March 13, has opened up a trove of virtual experience videos online. One of its videos of an African penguin feeding received 53,000 views on Facebook and 11,000 views on YouTube. Apart from it, the aquarium has a range of “at-home activities and educational resources” for children and their caregivers.
However, things are not as pretty as they look in the videos. The aquarium, in a press release on April 3, announced it was making budget cuts. They include laying off and furloughing employees, with two weeks’ pay and health benefits for three months. Staffers making more than $75,000 will take salary reductions. The aquarium explained this step as essential to make up for a $3.5 million deficit. Their wish is to hire back the employees, but due to the unclear and unpredictable nature of the pandemic, the details of this process were not divulged.
The New England Aquarium is not the only organization which has had to make tough decisions. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, one of the biggest museums in the U.S., has also furloughed some of its staff. It projects a loss of $10-$14 million as a result of the shutdown. As a part of the American Alliance of Museums, the MFA, along with other organizations in the arts sector, signed a letter on April 16, appealing the Congress to extend the COVID-19 response and recovery package to museums, art organizations and related businesses. The CARES Act—signed by President Trump on March 27—aims to provide economic assistance to American workers, employees, small businesses and preserve jobs for American industries. The MFA is ineligible for benefits, as it employs a staff of over 500 people.
To try to keep its collection accessible, the museum has uploaded various videos on its website and YouTube channel. It has also started InstaLateNites, a virtual gathering of Boston musicians and performers. The exhibition, “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” on the transition of street art into American contemporary art in 1980s New York City, is now featured on an enhanced web page. “It is our hope that by creating a virtual space to host this groundbreaking exhibition, we can continue the important work of building community and creating space for art and artists,” the MFA says. “It is in times of uncertainty that we find strength in community and inspiration in art.”
The Boston City Hall has a notorious reputation as one of the “ugliest” city hall buildings in the country. In a webinar hosted by Boston By Foot on 20th Century Boston and Beyond, on April 11, David Fixler, an architect and preservation consultant, spoke about the bold and Brutalist architecture of the building.
He also talked about its architect, Michael McKinnell, and his early success, which led him to co-design the City Hall at the age of 26. He says that McKinnell considered the building to be a “perfect microcosm of Boston politics.” He then informed the attendees that Michael McKinnell died on March 27 due to COVID-19-related complications.
Boston By Foot, a nonprofit, has over 200 volunteers who take people on walking tours across Boston, exploring hidden or ignored gems of Boston’s history and architecture. According to Samantha Nelson—the executive director of the organization—BBF caters to both a large tourist population and a huge local membership. She says the tours are as interesting to a Bostonian as they are to a visitor— “Like the City Hall!” Similar to the webinar, a BBF tour – “Rethinking Boston Brutalism,” ends at the City Hall. Nelson says she’s seen many locals change the way they look at the building after that tour.
When event cancellations began citywide, BBF was preparing for its season to start in April. Apart from their regular tours, staffers were set to begin their training program for new volunteers along with a series of special women’s history tours in March, and events celebrating the women’s suffrage centennial lined up throughout the year. “We had a whole thing going, even more than we typically would at this time of the year,” she says.
The BBF team initially tried to bargain with themselves—thinking that they could conduct their tours with adequate precautions like hand sanitizers on a tour or a revised absentee policy. Things then escalated quickly. By the end of the week, they realized that they will not be able to do their tours in March. A week later, they cancelled all their programs through April. Thinking back on their efforts to salvage their plans and conduct their tours somehow, Nelson laughs. “How we even thought we were going to go forward with it!” she rolls her eyes. “Of course we couldn’t do that.”
BBF took 19,000 tourees around the city of Boston in 2018. Now, with gatherings of more than four people not allowed, they have been putting up content online. Though they haven’t decided whether they’ll take their tours virtual. “In many ways, we feel that our walking tours are unique experiences and are really about interpersonal connection and live interaction,” Nelson says. She thinks virtual tours wouldn’t be able to take the place of live tours. “At least not at this point.”
With no signs of the city opening up soon, Nelson anticipates a huge drop in tourists. Nelson realizes that the training program will have to be moved to next year and a lot of their tours, like their cruise tours in fall, will not take place at all this year. Either way, Nelson recognizes that “this is going to be a bad year.”
This setback, however, has not stopped BBF from planning ahead. They are focused on engaging Bostonians who will also be looking for things to do. To reconnect them with their city while practicing social distancing, they plan to start virtual architectural and historical scavenger hunts encouraging Bostonians to take notice of their surroundings when they step out for some fresh air. Hopeful of starting up a few tours after June, they intend to offer more of their green spaces tours, to appreciate the spaces that have given many people much-needed respites this spring.
Another part of planning has been figuring out the finances of the organization. Nelson has been busy tapping their resources for aid. She is reaching out to their members and donors—hoping they will stay with them through this phase and join the programs when they resume.
With the relief package announced under the CARES Act, Nelson says that BBF is in line with every other small business and nonprofit, competing for federal funds. She has been busy stringing together paperwork and logistic requirements for their application. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed about those,” she says.
A silver lining that Nelson sees is the activation of social networks across their community. The Massachusetts Cultural Council has put together resources for artists and organizations whose work has been impacted due to COVID-19. The organization surveyed cultural organizations and individuals in the field about the initial impact between March 16 and March 22. It announced two relief programs on April 8: providing $1,000 monthly grants to individual artists and assistance to organizations, like BBF, trying to access federal government benefits. They conduct webinars and upload videos on YouTube which explain the CARES Act and help organizations with aid applications and planning for the future.
The experiences that organizations like New England Aquarium, the MFA or Boston By Foot provide don’t just shape how tourists and locals see the place. They also provide an important social function: getting people together.
Laura Sitterley, a freelance grant writer, has been a Boston By Foot volunteer for the last 15 years. She feels a sense of loss being in a situation where gatherings can have catastrophic consequences. “To not be able to convene people, for fun, for learning something new, or from each other—it’s really sad,” Sitterley says.
She worries about a future where people may not feel secure being in groups. “Are we going to come back to feeling like that’s something people want to do?” she asks. “Or will they have stopped wanting to do that kind of thing, because they’ve got used to this life that is completely different?”
Victoria Kichuk, who started Cocoa Beantown—an organization that pairs chocolate tasting with chocolate history tours and events in Boston—says she’s concerned about keeping the organization visible with virtual content while educating and entertaining people. Kichuk puts up free interactive sessions on Facebook each week. She sympathizes with families staying inside their homes and understands the pain of the parents who are working from home and homeschooling their kids. Through her content online, she attempts to help them take their minds off things. “And maybe if they forget about [it] for an hour, they have some laughs and [say], ‘I didn’t have to think about how crazy the world is right now.’ That to me is a huge win,” she says.
Kichuk started Cocoa Beantown as a blog and later converted it into a tour as she realized that chocolate could be a good “vehicle” for different perspectives and stories. On her Back Bay walking tour, which explores chocolate’s history in the neighborhood and the city, she discusses the neighborhood’s evolution while giving the tourists a taste of it from local chocolate houses and bakeries. Kichuk believes that this dynamic approach to discussion helps them connect. At the beginning of tours, she says, people are awkward and merely acknowledge each other. Sometimes it takes more time for them to break off from the groups that they came in. But as the tour progresses, they start talking to each other and laugh together. “We have had people exchanging email addresses after the tour,” she says. “We even had a group once, they all enjoyed each other so much, they all went to lunch.”
Her virtual experience trying to entertain people and looking at them participate has affirmed her faith in the human spirit. Kichuk says she’s learned from social distancing that our lives aren’t merely about survival. “There are things that you do to live your life, like looking for joy, making connections with people and taking time to smile, laugh and feel good,” she says. “And that is just as much a part of being human as anything else.”