The Challenge—and OpportunityBack to table of contents
The COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary restrictions on public gatherings that followed from it hit the creative sector hard. Theaters and art museums closed, filming stopped, gallery shows were canceled, and places where artists teach and lead community work, such as schools, community centers, and elder care homes, were shuttered. While some creative work continued remotely or resumed in person with restrictions, creative work that depends on gathering either large or intimate audiences (such as musical performance) is only now beginning to see the moment ahead for reopening. The Brookings Institution estimates that, at the end of July 2020, “2.7 million jobs and more than $150 billion in sales of goods and services for creative industries nationwide” had been lost due to pandemic-related restrictions, with the greatest damage incurred by the fine and performing arts.36 A subsequent analysis by the National Endowment for the Arts estimates that, by September 2020, more than half of actors were unemployed, along with 27 percent of those in music-related jobs.37 Nonprofit arts, entertainment, and recreation organizations lost over 31 percent of their jobs from February 2020 to March 2021—five times the job loss for nonprofits overall.38 Organizations, venues, artists, and other creative workers have experienced the pandemic as a financial crisis and, for many individuals, as a mental health crisis. Without substantial support from the federal government and a wide variety of philanthropic organizations, the damage would have been far worse.
The differential impact of the crisis on artists highlights many of the underlying weaknesses in the sector.39 Black and Hispanic workers in the sector already had lower weekly wages than white and Asian workers, while women had lower weekly wages than men across the board.40 In 2020, when the pandemic was at its height in the United States, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) artists reported higher rates of unemployment than white artists (69 percent versus 60 percent) and a greater loss of creative income (61 percent versus 56 percent).41 And 78 percent of artists reported that they had no post-pandemic financial recovery plan.42 Artists need help now, but they also need a better system that will both allow them to weather future crises and enable greater innovation and inclusion.
Artists and policy-makers have been looking toward the past to find models for recovery, with numerous op-eds and articles referencing the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA).43 In the wake of the Great Depression, amid high unemployment, the federal government instituted the WPA, a workforce and job creation program that employed hundreds of artists through commissions for public art, live theater, work as educators, and writing about the nation, among other activities. Various commissioning and employment programs were directed specifically at artists, often separated by art form. Similarly, the CETA program was initiated in 1973 to counter high unemployment. Artists were not specifically targeted, but tens of thousands of them benefited from its general provisions. Artists were employed in public service and in arts organizations. Both programs were successful, yet they were also controversial in some circles and short-lived. Because the WPA, in particular, was not intended as more than an emergency measure, it was not focused on building new systems of employment for artists. While it began some careers, and filled a gap for some others, it was not concerned with the long-term maintenance of artistic careers. And both programs have been criticized for the “top-down” nature of their efforts, which often ignored local structures and needs.
As we look to build a better future for the creative workforce, our challenge is to take inspiration from these historic programs (and from current recovery programs), while building a system that supports artists and their work for many years to come. We offer a set of recommendations that, if adopted, would help build a more supportive, sustainable, and fair system, and we join our voices to those of the many other organizations who are working toward this goal. The following principles and recommendations are one possible pathway to that future.
- 36Richard Florida and Michael Seman, Lost Art: Measuring COVID-19’s Devastating Impact on America’s Creative Economy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, August 2020), 3.
- 37Argonne National Laboratory, COVID-19 RSFLG Data and Assessment Working Group, “Analysis: COVID-19’s Impacts on Arts and Culture,” COVID-19 Weekly Outlook, January 4, 2021: 5.
- 38Chelsea Newhouse, “COVID-19 Jobs Update, March 2021: Nonprofits Regained Nearly 81,000 Jobs in March, but Still Face a Long Road to Full Recovery,” Center for Civil Society Studies, news release, April 14, 2021.
- 39William Deresiewicz, “Stages of Grief,” Harper’s, June 2021, argues that some of the sectoral weaknesses are tied to “the scandal of free content” that has led artists to gain income instead through live events.
- 40Data for 2019 show that in the arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations, white workers had a median weekly income of $1,150, Asian workers $1,322, Black/African American workers $1,058, and Hispanic/Latino workers $902. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity, 2019, BLS Reports, Report 1088 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 2020), 76. Broken out by gender, this disparity is even more striking, with white men earning $1,238 and Hispanic/Latina women earning $840. Ibid., 77–78.
- 41Randy Cohen, COVID-19 Impact on the Arts: Research Update, June 14, 2021 (Washington, D.C.: Americans for the Arts, July 2021).
- 43For example, see Virginia Maksymowicz and Blaise Tobia, “The Forgotten Federally Employed Artists,” Hyperallergic, December 25, 2020; Chloe Rabinowitz, “NYC Arts Workers to Rally to Demand Equitable Relief and a Precedent for Systemic Change,” Broadway World, May 3, 2021; Valentina Di Liscia, “A Message for the Next Administration: ‘We Must Put Creative Workers to Work,’” Hyperallergic, November 2, 2020; and Margaret Carrigan, “Could a Nixon-Era Employment Scheme Get Artists Back to Work?” Art Newspaper, June 10, 2020.