We need all hands on deck to save America’s arts and culture economy

The outdoor stages are silent. There are no art fairs or gallery walks, no concerts in the parks. The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated arts and culture in America, wiping out as many as half of all jobs for performing artists and musicians, and nearly a third of jobs for all those who work in the creative economy broadly spanning arts, music, theater, design, entertainment and media, according a study we did for the Brookings Institution.

Between April and the end of July, some 2.7 million jobs and $150 billion in revenues were lost. As the crisis took hold this spring, the average income of American artists and creatives plummeted to just about $14,000 a year.

While Broadway’s darkened marquees stand as the most prominent symbol of the crisis, the damage is being felt across the nation. Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, Austin, Orlando, Las Vegas and Miami lost an even greater share of their arts and culture jobs than New York City, while smaller states like Alaska, Nevada, New Mexico, Louisiana, and Hawaii have lost greater shares of cultural jobs and revenue than New York or California, according to our research.

Brutal losses and long-run costs

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 theaters, 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. These are the places where children hear our common stories, mount stages themselves, sing in choruses, learn to play musical instruments and to draw and paint. And their loss will fall heaviest on our least advantaged.  

We must do everything in our power to save arts and culture from this deepening crisis. What’s needed is a massive infusion of capital. Boris Johnson’s Conservative government just appropriated $1.9 billion in direct emergency aid for the arts in Great Britain. The original CARES legislation contained a paltry $40 million for artists and creatives who are paid wages, but none of it went to the many artists who live off of royalties and gigs. An equivalent outlay, adjusted for America’s size, would be about $15 billion. Unfortunately, we cannot depend on the Trump administration and our polarized Congress to take this essential step.  

Closed Broadway theaters on June 30, 2020, in New York City.
Closed Broadway theaters on June 30, 2020, in New York City.

Should Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win the White House this fall, saving America’s arts and creative sector must be a top priority of their economic recovery strategy. The importance of the arts was underlined at the virtual political convention where they were nominated. It was moderated by actors, motivated by musicians, and animated by visual artists.

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Hopefully they will put together a modern-day version of the Works Progress Administration initiatives of the New Deal, like the Federal Art Project, which subsidized artists like Dorothea Lange, Jackson Pollock and Jacob Lawrence; the Federal Writers’  Project, which supported authors like John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston; and the Federal Music Project, which not only supported professional musicians but documented America’s indigenous music, from blues and work songs to folk, bluegrass and more. 

But we cannot sit on our hands while we wait for a change of administration in Washington. There are steps we can take right now.

Cultural infrastructure is unravel

Just as governors and mayors have taken the lead in battling the virus, local actors are launching initiatives of their own. Denver’s COVID-19 Arts & Culture Relief Fund has marshaled contributions from a variety of donors; this month it disbursed its first $1.2 million in grants to 41 arts and culture organizations. The New Jersey Arts and Culture Recovery Fund, chaired by the state’s first lady, has raised $1.5 million. Much more funding can be mobilized from philanthropic foundations, philanthropic-minded corporations, national arts organizations, economic development groups, and state and local governments.

The absence of stadium concerts, multi-stage festivals and other large-scale events creates opportunities for locally-sourced culture. Online portals and platforms can be created that allow businesses and neighborhood groups to hire local artists. Cities can mobilize teams of designers, artists, and architects to enhance and revitalize public spaces.

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In time, falling rents in hard-hit central business districts may have the positive effect of making cities more affordable for creatives. Vacant offices can be converted to studio, gallery and performance spaces, as well as residences. But right now, our cultural infrastructure is unraveling.

We cannot allow this piece of our social and economic infrastructure to fall apart. Our creative economy of arts, culture, design, and entertainment is no mere luxury, it is one of the three key sectors that power innovation and economic growth. More than GDP or economic power, the true measure of a nation’s vitality and resilience is its cultural and technological creativity. From Louis Armstrong to Beyoncé, and from Irving Berlin to Lin-Manuel Miranda, arts and culture reflect and reinforce the power of our diversity.

We need a bottom-up, all-hands-on-deck effort to save America’s artistic and creative system, and we need it now.

Richard Florida (@Richard_Florida), a professor at the University of Toronto, and Michael Seman (@michaelseman), a professor of at Colorado State University, are the authors of “Lost Art: Measuring COVID-19’s Devastating Impact on America’s Creative Economy“, published recently by the Brookings Institution.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to [email protected]

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 is a crisis for US arts and culture economy. We must save it.

Alice G. Collins

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