Hit the Hardest, Closed the Longest: Artists Make the Case for More Covid Aid

Artist Pat Milbery works to paint Denver's largest street mural on Bannock Street between Colfax Avenue and 14th Avenue in front of the City/County Building, Thursday, May 28, 2020.

Artist Pat Milbery works to paint Denver's largest street mural on Bannock Street between Colfax Avenue and 14th Avenue in front of the City/County Building, Thursday, May 28, 2020. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Nearly 3 million jobs in the creative industries were lost during the coronavirus pandemic. While some local and state governments have offered assistance, advocates say more is needed.

Among the industries hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps none have been disrupted as badly as the arts.  

Concerts are indefinitely postponed. Theaters shuttered. Huge art festivals that drive tourism, from Burning Man to Art Basel, were cancelled. Many holiday markets, where artists and makers can sell their wares, didn’t open this winter. 

“The pandemic has been devastating to the creative economy and all its employees,” said Jay Dick, senior director of state and local government affairs at Americans for the Arts. “We were one of the first things to cease and will be one of the last things to get back up and running.”

Nearly 3 million jobs in creative industries are projected to have been lost, representing more than a third of all creative industry jobs in the United States, according to a Brookings Institution analysis this summer of the coronavirus impact on the creative economy. About $150 billion in sales of goods and services from creative industries is estimated to have been lost as well. 

Creative professionals are being hit from all sides, not only are many out of work, but going forward there may be less public grant funding available for artists as state and local governments coping with tax revenue declines end up slashing their budgets.

Some state and local governments have set up aid programs targeting direct financial relief to artists—Oregon earmarked $50 million for cultural institutions and independent venues across the state. But the federal support for the creative economy has been lackluster, arts leaders said, 

“It’s not just about the arts wanting special treatment,” said Kelly Barsdate, chief program and planning officer for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. “Across the board, the arts have lost four times more jobs and revenue than other industries.”

‘My Wildest, Worst Nightmare’

With Covid-19 infections on the rise this winter, the outlook has only grown dimmer for the return of large concerts or crowded theaters anytime soon. Even with the approval of vaccines to protect people against the disease, it may be some time before people are comfortable in a crowd. 

In Nashville, a city built around live music, the pain is palpable.

The Exit/In, an independent concert venue in Nashville, would typically hold 19 concerts a month. The club hasn’t opened for a concert in nine months, said owner Chris Cobb.

“It’s been as challenging as anyone could have imagined,” Cobb said. “In my wildest, worst nightmares I couldn’t have cooked this one up.”

The club employed seven full-time workers and 50 part-time employees before the pandemic. While Exit/In has tried to stream some live music online from its stage, Cobb had to lay off most of his workers. The employee roster is down to just three people, including himself.

Nashville’s music and entertainment industry was responsible for $15.6 billion in spending in 2019, according to a December report released by the city’s Chamber of Commerce.  But with the city’s honky tonks and independent music venues shut down for much of the pandemic, revenues have taken a nosedive.

While restrictions loosened up over the summer allowing some places to open, many chose to stay closed. Few want to risk opening only to spend more money on operations than they would have lost otherwise, Cobb said. 

“The capacity restrictions have made it an act of futility to operate,” he said.

A man walks by Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, closed because of the coronavirus, Monday, March 16, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Nashville Mayor John Cooper has called for bars on Broadway and throughout the county to close until further notice. He also asked restaurants to limit seating to 50 percent of capacity, with a cap of 100 people, and restaurant bars to not allow standing. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Independent music venues in Nashville generated nearly $50 million in 2019, but revenues are down 72% since the pandemic began, according to the chamber report. Those revenue declines translate to a tax loss of $2.8 million for the federal government, $808,000 for Tennessee, and $613,000 for Nashville.

Because of the reliance on the music and live entertainment industry, the Brookings report highlights Nashville as one of the city’s where creative industry losses will be most acute even though the number of jobs lost in other cities may be higher. The report estimates Nashville lost about 31,000 creative industry jobs between April and July, or about 35% of the jobs in that sector. New York and Los Angeles combined lost an estimated 400,000 jobs during that time and $15 billion in average monthly earnings.

California leads the country in the estimated number of creative economy job losses in a state (more than 450,000) due to the number of film and creative industries located there. It’s followed by New York and Texas for total estimated job losses. But the states expected to lose the largest percentage of creative occupations during the pandemic include smaller states like Louisiana, New Mexico, Hawaii, Nevada, and Tennessee.

Because many creative workers are self-employed or work in the gig economy, many did not qualify for traditional unemployment benefits and had to wait for a federal assistance program for contractors and freelancers to get up and running. But that assistance is set to run out at the end of the year if Congress does not renew it. And not all state or local governments have set up their own relief funds for artists.

Government funding for artists has been particularly hard to come by in the South, said Carlton Turner, the lead artist and director of the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production, which distributed $2,500 grants to about 150 affected artists.

“Artists are never talked about when you talk about stimulus relief funding,” Turner said.

The indifference many artists have encountered has only added to the emotional strain of the pandemic, he said.

“There’s been blatant disregard for the industry, like it doesn’t matter if we have the arts or not,” he said. “That from a psychological standpoint was tough.”

The Government Response

Federal coronavirus relief dedicated some funding to the arts at the outset of the pandemic through the CARES Act. But given the duration of the pandemic, arts organizations say it hasn’t been enough.

The National Independent Venue Association has lobbied for Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act, which would provide additional grants for live venue operators, promoters and producers and give flexibility in grant programs that take into account their reliance on part-time workers. Support for arts and music venues has been raised in the most recent negotiations over a coronavirus relief package, but it is unclear if the provisions will be included in the final package.

At the state and local level, some government leaders offered direct assistance to creative professionals using CARES Act funding or community block grant money to offer one-time grants. At least 23 states created special supplemental relief for arts, Barsdate said.

The Oregon legislature’s $50 million arts and cultural relief fund is by far the most any state has directly appropriated for relief for creative industries during the pandemic.

“Oregon just kind of blew us away given their population,” Dick said.

The money was distributed to venues, arts and cultural organizations to cover operating expenses while they are closed.

Virginia awarded $5,000 grants to 40 artists in August as part of a relief fund program for those affected by the pandemic. The funding was provided through the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ existing Artist Fellowship Endowment. Ohio set aside $20 million in CARES Act funding to be used as grants for cultural and arts organizations.

But state and local aid hasn’t been consistently available. 

“It’s been really hard-pressed to find any government agencies that are providing aid in our area,” said Turner with the Mississippi organization about funding for arts organizations in the South. “The larger issue is arts and culture are not respected as a driver for the economy on the federal scale.”

In Austin, home of the music and creative arts South by Southwest Festival, city government offered numerous grants to musicians and creative workers, as well as assistance to music and performance venues. Nashville set aside $2 million in CARES Act funding the city received specifically to cover up to two months of expenses for independent music venues. The award came after Cobb and other venue owners joined forces to form the Music Venue Alliance, a non-profit that has helped raise awareness about the pandemic’s impact on the local music industry and organized a virtual concert series

State and local governments have engaged artists and musicians in other ways, as well, tapping their creativity to help with messaging and outreach efforts during the pandemic.

Denver paid local artists $20,000 to paint a 430-foot mural on a street that was closed to vehicle traffic during the pandemic to make more room for pedestrians and outdoor dining. 

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer commissioned city songwriters and musicians to create a song for the city at the outset of the pandemic. The result was “Lift Up Louisville,” a collaboration that spans genres and includes the work of 25 people.

The cost of producing the song was about $8,000, with individual contributors paid between $50 and $1,500 depending on the scope of work, Fischer said.

“The idea was to create a city song that would bring us together,” Fischer said.

The city used the song as part of its efforts to raise money for the Louisville Covid-19 response fund, which ultimately distributed $11 million in grants to individuals and nonprofits in the community.

Fischer, who serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, shared the idea with fellow politicians and encouraged them to back similar initiatives in their own cities. To date, artists in nine cities have written and produced works for the city song project.

Future of Arts Budgets

Weathering the coronavirus outbreak and economic shutdowns isn’t the only concern for artists and musicians. The cost of responding to the pandemic has cut into state and local governments budgets, and many localities are looking at smaller budgets either this year or next year. 

Cities and states have slashed budgets this year to address revenue shortfalls and many arts leaders predict that continued cuts would likely reduce funding for the arts going forward.   

In some cities, the ability to provide arts funding is directly tied to economic recovery.

Houston, Texas uses revenue from its hotel occupancy tax to support the city’s arts and cultural programming. But those tax receipts fell from $87.5 million in 2019 to $54.8 million this year. The city was initially set to distribute a little over $1 million in grants to 72 individual artists this year using that money, but officials now estimate that they will only have about half that amount to pay out to grantees.

“The hotel occupancy tax is tied to tourism. Until the economy recovers and tourism normalizes again, HOT revenue will be reduced, which will ultimately impact grantmaking,” said John Abodeely, CEO of the Houston Arts Alliance, the organization that oversees city arts programming and grants.

Acknowledging it will take time before tourism rebounds and hotel tax revenue returns to normal, the organization is working to finalize a proposal that would address the funding shortage this year and fairly manage next year’s potential grant cycle, Abodeely said. In the meantime, HAA launched its own relief fund to provide financial assistance to artists so they could cover basic needs like housing, food and healthcare.  

Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg walks among thousands of white flags planted in remembrance of Americans who have died of COVID-19, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington. Firstenberg's temporary art installation, called "In America, How Could This Happen," will include an estimated 240,000 flags when completed. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Arts leaders acknowledged that local and state government officials are likely preoccupied with the urgent needs of schools and health care workers right now. But artists, musicians and creative industries will have a role to play in the recovery of the economy, Barsdate said.

“Artists turn around economies and rural and distressed communities. They stimulate jobs in other sectors that depend on a vibrant arts economy,” she said.

In Louisville, Fischer said he expects live entertainment and waterfront music festivals to play a role in attracting tourists back to the city when it is safe to reopen.

“People are just thirsty for arts and entertainment and getting outside,” he said.

In addition to helping drive the economy, artists and musicians will also have a role to play in helping communities psychologically recover from the distress of the pandemic, Dick said.

Numerous artists have created works honoring people who died from Covid-19 infections—including Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s work "In America, How Could This Happen?” which covered a grassy patch of land in Washington, D.C. with more than 200,000 white flags to represent each person who died from the virus. 

Governors and mayors will hopefully recognize and embrace the value that artists bring to their communities, “whether it be stimulating the economy or helping everyone’s soul get through this,” Dick said. “We are all tired and stressed, we need the arts more than we ever have in the past.”

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent at Route Fifty.

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