Want to Save the Economy? Save the Arts First.

On March 12th, the lights went out on Broadway when Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the theaters to close. The same day, other institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, Carnegie Hall, and the New York Philharmonic announced that they would close too, while performances were canceled across the country in places like California, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston. With Broadway fully shuttered until at least 2021 and arts and culture organizations across the country on pause—losing revenue and unable to pay employees—the entire industry is on the brink of collapse and needs immediate economic relief. 

Facing these circumstances, it’s unfortunately no surprise that over 10% of arts organizations—12,000 nationwide—are not confident that they will survive the pandemic. Meanwhile, a whopping 94% of artists, almost all low-income already, have lost pay since the start of the pandemic and 64% are fully unemployed. These statistics represent real people whose work reaches every part of our lives. Art is not limited to Broadway musicals, impressionist paintings, or symphony orchestras, generally accessible to a small, elite few. Rather, art influences everything, and it is the basis of all American culture. 

Beyond the fact that the arts are worth supporting on their own, the industry includes 5 million jobs and contributes $877.8 billion annually to the U.S. economy. A recent study shows that arts and culture constitutes around 4.5% of U.S. GDP, ranking only behind retail and healthcare in value added. In addition, arts and culture outperforms construction by $87 billion and transportation by $265 billion, two industries that received special consideration in previous legislation. Moreover, the economic power of the arts permeates beyond the nation’s borders and routinely generates a trade surplus with other countries, amounting to nearly $30 billion in 2017. It’s imperative for everyone that this industry survive the pandemic. 

And, in case the situation weren’t dire enough, if Congress provides insufficient state and local aid in its upcoming relief package—a move that will disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color—arts education funding will certainly suffer. Not only will this crush the pipeline of new artists pursuing creative careers, but, without such programs, students will care less about school, be less empathetic, and perform worse on standardized tests.

Prioritizing arts and culture relief is particularly important to state governments in areas where the industry’s contribution surpasses the national average. Arts and culture jobs add the most value of any industry in California, Washington, Massachusetts, and New York, as well as the District of Columbia. In the 2018-2019 season, the Broadway league reported that attendance at Broadway shows surpassed that of all ten professional New York and New Jersey sports teams combined, by a margin of 4.6 million. 

Certainly, arts and culture events should not recommence until it is absolutely safe to do so, and the arts are understandably de-prioritized when accelerating US deaths, record unemployment, an imperative discussion about systemic racism, and the questionable safety of reopening schools dominate the news. Even so, how do we ensure that this economic behemoth is able to weather the continuing storm and that 5 million Americans are not left permanently unemployed? 

Beyond continuing both expanded healthcare and unemployment benefits, Congress must apportion relief money for the arts. If ten airlines can receive $50 billion in the CARES Act, the arts and culture industry undeniably deserves its fair share of financial support too. The U.S. economy is inextricably tied to the success of arts and culture organizations. As long as this monstrous gash across the center of the American economy remains untreated, it will continue to hemorrhage jobs and livelihoods, making a full recovery nearly impossible. 

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