Where were you on March 12, 2020? I was on contract in North Carolina rehearsing for a production of the musical Memphis. I was less than a year out of college, had recently moved to New York City, and was living my dream of being a professional actor and dancer. That morning, I read that Broadway would be closing for at least a month. That afternoon, I was informed that our production wouldn’t be happening as planned. And later that week, I was on an otherwise empty plane back home as the country panicked.
You likely experienced some variation on this theme, especially if you work in the arts. A month became two, became three, became six. We were assured the virus was under control— it wasn’t— and over the course of just a couple of weeks, COVID-19 went from a far-away problem for China and Italy to a ubiquitous force completely and indefinitely shutting down our lives without warning. I’m not really interested in writing a rebuke of President Trump and the federal government’s treatment of the pandemic (although it certainly deserves one). Plenty of writers have done that much better than I could. Instead, I’d like to address about a larger, more personal issue: the government’s treatment of the arts.
Congress actually responded to our impending doom fairly quickly at first, passing the CARES Act back in late March. They sent out our $1200 stimulus checks, expanded our unemployment benefits to an extra $600 per week, provided relief to struggling industries, and created a loan program for small businesses. We were all okay for a while. I remember hearing peers say things like “this time off is a blessing,” which annoyed me at the time because I was so eager to get back to work.
But while national unemployment peaked around 14%, arts workers were unemployed at a rate of 62%. And as other fields have slowly returned under new precautions, arts institutions have largely remained closed. Expanded unemployment expired back in July. Funds for small businesses ran out months ago. Not a dime in additional stimulus money has been distributed, despite promises to the contrary. Theaters and rehearsal spaces remain closed, with over 41% potentially closed forever. Seven months later, we have absolutely no help— and no work to go back to.
To their credit, Democrats in the House have put forth an effort, passing multiple relief bills to extend and expand the earlier relief measures. President Trump and Republicans in the Senate have refused to even bring these bills to a vote, opting to let the economy recover on its own (despite recommendations from the Federal Reserve otherwise). If there were just four more Democrats in the Senate, we’d likely be getting $600 more a week. But even so, individual relief measures wouldn’t address the deeper problem at hand. Make no mistake: arts neglect is a bipartisan effort.
Arts and culture is an $877 billion industry, employing 5.1 million people and contributing 4.5% of the national GDP. For context, that’s bigger than the entire transportation industry by a substantial margin. Yet despite being hit harder than most other industries, arts and culture were left out of the relief conversation almost entirely. While the top ten U.S. airlines alone got $50 billion in relief funds, the arts got just $75 million. No, that’s not a typo. Just ten airlines, a fraction of a much smaller industry, received 666 times more funding than the entirety of the arts. That’s not to say they didn’t need the relief, of course. But while airlines have now been running at limited capacity for months, theaters remain empty. Neglecting the collapse of any industry as large as the arts has devastating ripple effects across the entire economy.
This is, of course, indicative of a much larger problem. In a normal year, arts funding comprises just 0.003% of our annual federal budget, or about 41 cents per capita, compared to, say, Germany’s 20 dollars per capita. They have also passed robust arts relief from COVID-19, as have most other developed countries. How our government spends shows what we value as a society. The “starving artist” trope, the underfunding of arts education, the lack of seriousness attributed to a career in the arts— these do not exist in a vacuum. They are a direct result of governmental neglect. Our elected officials decide where the money goes, and while big business spends millions on lobbyists that secure that funding, we have to fend for ourselves. Be An Arts Hero, a new organization, is leading that fight and working with Congress to pass proportionate arts relief.
Every day that case numbers continue to rise is another day that arts workers are unemployed. Every day we are out of work, more of us lose health insurance, cannot pay rent, and have to close businesses. We need to elect leadership that will help us through this crisis, and right now, that’s Democrats. But we also need leadership that recognizes our value, both to the culture and to the economy, and puts money where their mouths are.
As artists, we are inherently political. Every time we create, we tell a story that hasn’t been heard before, and invite our audience to experience a new perspective. That is an act of protest— because the more stories we tell, the more connected we are as a people, and the more power we have to create change for the better. So while we are forced out of work, we must use that power to fight for our communities. That includes fighting for ourselves.