Recently, the advocacy group Be An Arts Hero was trying to get a meeting with Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski about why there needs to be a federal bailout for the arts. Suffice it to say, it was not going well. “Her person got back in touch with us and was like, ‘Oh, you know, it’s not a big deal up here.’” said Carson Elrod, one of the cofounders of Be An Arts Hero, an independent non-profit advocacy group.
But the group was undeterred. Said Elrod: “We wrote back and we said, ‘Well, it’s this many tens of thousands of jobs. It’s this many billions of dollars contributed to Alaska’s GSP. And these are organizations that are positioned to fail that are vulnerable. And this is what’s at stake.’ And her economic policy person got back in touch with us and said, ‘I’d like to talk to you guys right away.’”
The group was able to have an hour-long conversation with Murkowski’s senior policy counsel Anne McInerny who told them, as Elrod recalled: “Well, your argument is unimpeachable. What you’re saying is that 4.5% of the GDP has been left out of the relief conversation, and you want to be put into it.”
The fact that Murkowski was willing to listen to them proved a point that the group was making: “There is no state where arts and culture doesn’t employ tens of thousands people and provide billions of dollars of economic value,” said Elrod. And a way to get politicians to care about the arts is to lobby for it in those terms. Simple, right? Not really.
Be An Arts Hero was founded this past July, by three out-of-work theater actors (Brooke Ishibashi, Jenny Makholm, and Elrod) who were seeing their industry shut down before their eyes with no plan of re-opening. It was originally a social media campaign, to publicly advocate for an arts bailout in America.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the creative sector (this includes live performance, Hollywood, musicians, visual arts, artisans, etc.) is responsible for employing 5.1 million people, provides $877 billion value added to the economy, and makes up 4.5% of GDP. According to Be An Arts Hero, the arts “adds more value than transportation, agriculture, or tourism.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a loss of 2.7 million arts jobs (and counting). And theater and live performance in particular was the first industry to shut down and will be the last industry to reopen.
Speaking as someone who lost her arts job because of this pandemic, I have been frustrated, along with other arts people, about the lack of attention this has been given by Congress and the public at large. Granted, that frustration is just the cherry on top of the multitude of debilitating feelings of anger and grief the Trump Administration has caused.
Meanwhile, countries like Germany and the United Kingdom have provided $50 billion and $1.5 billion, respectively, to their arts industries during the pandemic. Granted, these are countries that are also giving their residents monthly stipends during the pandemic because unlike the U.S., they don’t have a Republican party who would rather take away people’s healthcare during a pandemic than pass more federal relief.
This lack of attention to the arts sector can be seen as a lack of care overall from Congress. After all, restaurants are also in a similar dire state as the arts, and there’s no bailout coming for them anytime soon.
Recently, a number of lobbying groups from the Broadway League, and the recently created National Independent Venue Association, successfully lobbied the House of Representations to fold the Save Our Stages Act into its HEROES Act.
Save Our Stages would provide “grants to eligible live venue operators, producers, promoters, or talent representatives to address the economic effects of the COVID-19.” The grants can go up to $12 million and can be used for payroll costs, rent, utilities, and personal protective equipment.
Granted, SOS and HEROES is basically in stasis unless the Democrats successfully take back the Senate on Nov. 3.
Other lobbying groups, such as Theatre Communications Group (where I used to work) and Actors’ Equity Association, helped lobby for freelancers to be eligible for unemployment benefits as part of the CARES Act—a majority of arts workers are freelance. And a number of groups have been lobbying Congress for the HEROES Act, which would provide another stimulus check to Americans, and additional unemployment money.
It seems like in the Senate, these pleas are falling on deaf ears.
At the same time, given the dire state of the arts currently, there is a remarkable lack of urgency from artistic producers.
The head of the Broadway League, which contains around 800 members, Charlotte St. Martin told Broadway News that while the League was campaigning for SOS, the bill “certainly doesn’t save us, because we’re not going to die.” As Broadway News put it, “[Martin] said, it would help support the industry as it works to rebuild audiences.”
Those words seem very out-of-touch with the present moment when 2.7 million arts workers are unemployed, and tens of thousands are losing their health insurance. Even during a pandemic, the arts ecosystem is still divided between the haves and the have nots.
“There were portions of this business that are still operating under the same gatekeeper paradigm, as though it were business as usual,” said Makholm of Be An Arts Hero. “As though the house wasn’t literally on fire, and we’re just trying to pass buckets to each other of water.”
And it is because the people who control the industry are those with money, who do not feel this recession as deeply as the independent contractors, technicians, artisans, assistants, and other people whose earnings from the arts afford them a middle-class lifestyle.
Which means when producers go to Congress to lobby, they are only only lobbying for their sector. SOS mainly benefits producers and venue owners. They do not benefit the independent contractors who make up a majority of the industry. No wonder, as Washington Post critic Peter Marks puts it in one tweet, “The [Broadway] League has been told by its DC lobbyists—one Democratic, one Republican—not to mention Broadway in their efforts to secure help. Lawmakers hear it and think, rich people.”
Because the people lobbying for that relief are rich people looking to primarily bail out their relatively privileged friends.
“Everybody’s kind of only looking out for themselves,” said Makholm. “And I don’t blame them, because that’s born of decades of disenfranchisement and defunding. So it’s not as though they’re coming at it from a selfish impulse. It’s just that when you have been systemically defunded, over the course of multiple decades, you have to get into survival mode in order to survive.”
That’s why I’ve found the Be An Arts Hero team so inspiring, because they’re actively strategizing outside of the box. For one, they are rank-and-file arts workers who are independent contractors, who don’t belong to a theater or a Broadway show.
They are also super visible. Their Instagram has over 18,000 followers. They got a bunch of Broadway actors to perform a song from RENT in Times Square and the video got over 80,000 views.
And since their founding, they’ve met with around 60 Congressional senators. They are now a 501(c)(4) called Arts Workers United and can take donations. Not bad for a movement that’s not even six months old.
But more importantly, they’re trying to bring together the fragmented parts of the arts industry, different groups who are all lobbying for their own small piece of the pie, to come together and lobby for a large pie that will benefit everyone. It’s not just about getting a celebrity involved. It’s about everyone (especially those who work in the arts) shouting that the arts are not made by elites, that the arts are valuable, that the work is actually labor, and those that make it need help.
Or to use another corollary. When the airline industry was asking for a bailout, it wasn’t asking on behalf of its CEOs or executives. The airlines, along with the unions that represent workers, centered pilots, flight attendants, and other workers. It said that if Congress did not give them those funds, they would be forced to lay people off. And the industry got $25 billion bailout, and a majority of that money had to go to payroll.
While SOS is asking for $10 billion, Be An Arts Hero thinks the ask should be higher, in proportion to the need of the industry and the people in it, but also the economic value it has. Said Ishibashi:
“We’re asking for $43.85 billion dollars because we’re advocating for the entire arts and culture sector. I think it becomes a tricky conversation of divisiveness. I think everyone kind of silos off into different compartments and departments. And it seems to us that we may be the first ones who’ve come along to say: Hi, why don’t we rally the troops and provide a collective or a unified front, so that we’re mobilizing everyone under the arts and culture sector together? And wouldn’t that be so much more effective if we all go to Congress as a unit and say, give us a blanket amount that will cover everyone? Instead of these 16 different frickin’ bills that are just lying in a heap collecting dust in Congress right now, because they don’t know what to do with it.”
That model has some precedence. Over the summer, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival successfully lobbied to a $50 million arts relief package from the state of Oregon. And they didn’t do it alone. “This is not something that could have been accomplished without the coming together [of a] coalition of arts organizations around the state,” said OSF marketing manager CJ Martinez. “The responsibility and the relevance and the inherent connection between the Ashland community and OSF, and the responsibility for not just that community but the economics of the whole southern region of Oregon, I think, also played a role in the consideration that OSF was given.”
If the arts want to show that they are not for the elites and that arts workers are not part of the elites, then those workers need to be placed at the forefront of any campaign for support. And how much money arts workers make, what their lives are actually like, and how hard they are struggling right now, need to be part of the bailout narrative.
At the very least, all of these lobbying efforts need to be a lot more visible publicly. Those who do arts lobbying tend to work behind the scenes, and the process is invisible unless you’re in the literal rooms where they happen. But what it those conversations were also happening publicly?
If the arts sector can focus on getting out the vote in advance of the election, and fundraising for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and publicly announce all those events with clever PSAs and music videos, they can also do the same to get relief for their sector.
Where is the large marketing campaign showing how an average stage manager lives? Or the PSA about the playwright who is leaving the country because they cannot afford NYC and do not feel safe? Or the YouTube video about the working actor who brought joy to so many people, but got COVID and now cannot effectively do their job? Where are the Broadway celebrities and producers advocating for Medicare for All and a monthly basic stipend for all out-of-work Americans?
When the arts and culture sector wants to, they can market the hell out of their products. But why can’t they market for their livelihoods and for their industries?
In my estimation, as someone viewing it from the outside, it seems the leaders of the theater industry are taking the same approach to COVID as the federal government: don’t acknowledge how bad things are and hope it will one day just “disappear.”
Meanwhile those on the ground are getting sick, getting evicted, moving out of the country, leaving the industry, because they can’t afford to wait for a summer 2021 Broadway reopening. The longer the pandemic rages on, and there is no relief to arts workers, it means that when theaters reopen, the industry will be more elite, more white than before. As lower-income artists, artists of color, immigrant artists leave the industry because of economic uncertainty, only the wealthy will be able to afford to do theater or buy a theater ticket. Before the pandemic, white actors made $1.70 for every $1 an actor of color made, because works featuring people of color are seen as riskier and are given less funding. How bad will this inequality be after the pandemic, as producers tighten their purses even more?
The arts have touched the lives of every single person in America. And now is the time for those who make it to come out and publicly make a case for why their work is important, why they’re regular people who deserve relief—like every person in America who’s not rich. Just because the popular perception is that the arts, and the people in them, are for elites doesn’t mean that the industry shouldn’t try to change that perception.
If people don’t care, make them care.
“For us, infrastructure is the people,” said Ishibashi. “When Broadway picks up the phone and they’re like, ‘We’re back, everybody, let’s go.’ And the Costume Industry Coalition and all of their warehouses and all of their suppliers, and all of the audio companies, lighting companies, and sound companies—when all of those surrounding businesses have imploded because they haven’t gotten the support they needed to survive the crisis, then Broadway can’t come back.”
She then continued. “What we are trying to do is provide a more comprehensive, holistic, long-term solution. And spray a giant firehose of sunshine and money across the entire arts and culture sector—not just theater, not just Broadway, not just New York City.”