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It is not just artists who are starving: how the US can rebuild its creative industry post-Covid

A proposal issued to both presidential campaigns by Americans for the Arts outlines a national strategy to put creative workers back to work

Theater artist Billy Bustamante Photo: Michaelah Reynolds.

In the lead up to the presidential election in November, and in response to the economic crisis precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans for the Arts (AFTA), a non-profit arts advocacy group, has today released a proposal for a national recovery strategy that the next administration can use to put creatives back to work.

“The timing for this proposal is not accidental. We know that there can be no recovery without creativity,” says Clay Lord, the organisation's vice president of strategic impact. “Both of the major presidential campaigns, and many of the Congressional campaigns, are building out their detailed priorities and platforms now—and we know that recovery from the pandemic and the addressing of racial injustice are top priorities.”

Some actions within the 15-point plan could be achieved in one day through executive orders, such as directing federal departments to employ creative workers or completing the authorisation and funding of an ArtistCorps within AmeriCorps. Others involve the development and passage of new laws and policies in conjunction with Congress—for example, making permanent the ability of gig workers and independent contractors to access federal unemployment benefits, or taking up and passing legislation that would adjust existing federal policies to be more inclusive of creative workforce projects. The aim is to provide more security to the 55 million independent contractors in the US, which includes roughly 5.1 million workers in creative fields.

On the other side of all of this, we cannot simply end up with the systems and structures we had before Clay Lord, Americans for the Arts

Lord says that since the start of the pandemic, Americans for the Arts has been working with different coalitions of creative organisations, artists and private sector leaders to think through how to get relief to creative workers in the US and how to integrate them into local, state and federal policy makers’ recovery plans. One of these efforts was a research collaboration with Artist Relief, a consortium of funders that has distributed millions of dollars to creative workers, which yielded comprehensive if harrowing findings in a report first published in May. The results of the study revealed that nearly two-thirds of all creative workers had been rendered fully unemployed by Covid-19.

But despite that hardship, Lord explains, over 75% of those who were polled have been doggedly working in their communities to improve morale, spark cohesion, and make sure the arts get on the road to recovery. Moreover, 80% of them say they are ready and willing to use their creativity to bolster a post-Covid economic revival. “The creative economy is primed and ready to be a part of the recovery, and we want our candidates and elected leaders to know that,” Lord says.

More than just artists

In the last three weeks, AFTA was able to convene more than 125 cultural groups to form the Getting Creative Workers Working coalition. That group, along with others in the Americans for the Arts network, collaborated to created this set of policy proposals, which currently has more than 700 endorsements from artists like Christine Sun Kim, the actor Annette Bening and the former National Endowment for the Arts chair Jane Alexander.

But it is not just artists who are starving. Museum workers, faced with mounting job cuts as institutions and non-profits slash budgets, are struggling to unionise with the hope of gaining more job security. And, on the commercial side, event venues and galleries are whittling staff down to a core few as business remains limited or suspended. A UBS and Art Basel report published yesterday finds that one third of galleries surveyed downsized their staff in the first half of 2020, losing an average of four employees, with around half of the losses being full-time employees.

AFTA’s so-called “Put Creative Workers to Work” proposal also follows a demonstration in Times Square on Labor Day (7 September) in which 100 New York-based artists, performers and cultural workers like stage hands and set designers performed “Will I?” from the musical RENT, while clutching signs listing their professions and calling on Congress for additional pandemic relief, saying their industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus.

The performance was organised by Be An Arts Hero, an intersectional grassroots campaign to get the US Senate to pass emergency relief for the arts. On 2 September, the group announced the Defend Arts Workers Now (DAWN) Act, a bill that would authorise $43.85bn in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and the Small Business Administration (SBA) to make grants to the operators, employees, and artists of live venues, recording venues, cultural spaces and related businesses that have remained shuttered due to Covid-19.

“Our arts and culture sector contributes $877bn to the economy. We’re 4.5% of the GDP and we comprise 5.1 million American workers,” Be an Arts Hero organiser Jenny Grace Makholm told CBS news in a live TV report, adding that the federal relief that has come through amounts to a “Band-Aid over a bullet wound”.

On Tuesday, Richard Florida and Michael Seman—the authors of a Brookings Institution report published last month that estimated the loss of 2.7 million jobs and $150m in revenue within the creative industries nationwide—wrote in a USA Today opinion piece: “As brutal as the losses are in jobs and dollars, the longer-run costs to society are even more devastating. Far too many of the nation’s more than 100,000 community theatres, art galleries, music venues, performance spaces and arts organizations of all sorts have closed their doors already; many more will likely shutter before the crisis ends.

Florida and Seman both pointed to the need for more government aid—and quickly. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government appropriated about $2bn in direct emergency aid for the arts. “The original CARES legislation contained a paltry $40m for artists and creatives who are paid wages, but none of it went to the many artists who live off of royalties and gigs,” the authors wrote. “An equivalent outlay, adjusted for America’s size, would be about $15bn. Unfortunately, we cannot depend on the Trump administration and our polarized Congress to take this essential step.”

Non-partisan precedents

Culture and creativity should not be partisan issues, Lord says, and it is not unprecedented for the cultural community to share ideas and attempt to influence the policy planks of candidates for office. What is “absolutely unprecedented” is presenting these candidates with such “comprehensive and bold policy proposals and with so much unified support from the cultural field”, Lord explains.

Within modern US history, however, there is a precedent of presidents from both sides of the political spectrum enacting cultural work programmes amid major economic and social challenges. In 1935, Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and within it authorised the Federal Arts Projects, which directly employed tens of thousands of artists and creative workers to document the time, beautify spaces and communities, produce some of the most well-known plays, paintings, musical compositions, books, and photographs of the 20th century.

When similar challenges faced Republican President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, he authorised the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (Ceta), which directed funding and guidelines from the federal government to local community development efforts—and launched and funded an entire generation of artists, writers and performers who specialised in community development and social cohesion projects.

AFTA looked to these previous work programmes for inspiration for its proposal while also combining suggested actions from, among other sources, Standing for Cultural Democracy, the Cultural New Deal for Cultural and Racial Justice, various working papers from Americans for the Arts, Californians for the Arts’s Job Creation Strategies and Actionable Items for the Arts Sector, Arts Wisconsin’s We’re All In Creative Workforce Program, and The Office’s Artists at Work programme.

Lord believes that these ideas, along with others about comprehensive national recovery, will be taken up as strong threads in both presidential campaigns and will become major focal points starting in 2021. Organisations and creative workers who wish to endorse this proposal can do so via the Creative Workforce Proposal Endorsement form.

“The entire country is hurting, our economic engine is stalling, our social structures are straining, and we’re all being traumatised by both the pandemic and the cultural strife. We have seen major unemployment, significant financial hardship, violent clashes between protestors and police, and more,” he says. “On the other side of all of this, we cannot simply end up with the systems and structures we had before. We must reimagine our communities—and you can’t do that without engaging the creative workforce.”