crisis 2020

Does Arts-Funding Advocacy Need a Famous Face?

There’s nobody on that stage. Photo: Nikada/Getty Images

I know time doesn’t feel real right now — but time is running out. The Paycheck Protection Program loans are drying up. As of July 31, the $600 unemployment insurance assistance checks will stop coming. Congress is mulling a bill that will determine how and whether that Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) will continue or contract into nothing, whether those who have been left out or ignored will get essential subsistence funds. And in just days, we’ll know if the arts, which make up 4.5 percent of our GDP, have again been treated by the Senate as frivolities, despite being a larger chunk of the national economy than transportation or construction.

third of U.S. museums say they might not recover at all. In its July fact sheet, Americans for the Arts says that 12,000 arts organizations in the U.S. aren’t confident they can weather the storm. Music festivals and arts-in-education programs and theaters are all in existential peril. The freelancers who make the art are about to be evicted. Perhaps during this quarantine you’ve listened to some music or watched a livestream to keep the isolation at bay? Then take a moment to think about the fact that those things that make life sweet, that draw communities together are being dragged over the cliff’s edge. For many in the field, they feel abandoned; it’s become commonplace online to complain that there’s no concerted effort being made to save the sector. But work is being done, though there’s no figurehead for it.

In the U.K., when pandemic funding for the arts was in question, public figures rallied. In a letter to the Financial Times, Sam Mendes — theater director and occasional James Bond moviemaker — wrote, “The performing arts need to be saved now. Not next week, or next month. If they die, an ecosystem this intricate and evolved cannot be rebuilt from scratch. If it stops breathing, it cannot be resuscitated.” In The Guardian, the West End producer Sonia Friedman said that British theater was “on brink of total collapse.” Celebrities demanded help for the arts sector and the result was a bailout package of £1.57 billion. Where are our Mendes equivalents? Almost all our celebrities are artists, and though they have been generous in joining fundraisers, the benefiting organizations can only disburse small grants. You don’t save 5 million jobs that way. Where are their demands? Fancy people, the country’s op-ed pages await you.

One new effort, Be an Arts Hero, has stepped into the gap. So far, it’s a kitchen-table organization (though everything right now is a kitchen-table organization), made up of actors determined not to let their art form sicken further. Two of the volunteers, Carson Elrod and Brooke Ishibashi, spoke to me about trying to borrow methods from Instagram activism like the Ice Bucket Challenge (which raised $115 million for A.L.S. research) to reach out to all 100 senators. They ask artists to contribute videos of what their work means to them; they also have a downloadable packet that has talking points, statistics, and action items for those who’d like to join the fight. While Elrod talked to me about the way a shored-up entertainment sector might help our economic recovery, Ishibashi explicitly tied their struggle to “the everyday worker, since they’re going to be devastated the most,” she says. “These shutdowns are negatively, and disproportionately, affecting BIPOC people.” They know the reach and power of the celebrity endorsement, though, and they’re trying to gather exactly that sort of steam to power their movement.

If too many public faces have been sleeping (or hiding), there has been valiant but unheralded action elsewhere. Some of the organizing comes from the unions, including an impressive push from the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which organized 9,000 calls to state offices, supporting the House-passed HEROES Act. The national nonprofit theater service organization Theatre Communications Group (TCG) is part of the Performing Arts Alliance, and its approaches to the Hill have focused on a series of interconnected relief efforts: broadening the Small Business Administration’s loan programs, expanding nonprofit funding, and bolstering infrastructure.

And there have been victories. Teresa Eyring, executive director of TCG, is proud of the lobbying successes from the earlier months of the crisis, making sure freelancers were included in unemployment assistance, for example. And Sade Lythcott, chief executive officer of National Black Theater in Harlem, says, “We have been more actively mobilized, created more community, and leveraged more resources than we ever have!” She credits her participation on the daily, 100-or-so person Culture@3 call with helping her “pound the drum for the Coalition of Theatres of Color,” an organization she chairs. The daily teleconferences include both arts leaders and city representatives, and there she was able to make her case in Zoom after Zoom. Even in this summer’s fraught city-budgeting process, Lythcott managed to keep CTC’s $3.74 million-dollar initiative unhurt and uncut, which means that 52 of New York’s Black and brown cultural organizations will survive.

Lythcott is now part of the governor’s task force on reopening — her municipal work has expanded to include the state level. But she says the vast majority of aid will need to come from the Feds. “Keep the pressure on their shoulders,” she says. All the arts advocacy people I spoke with emphasized that the twin punches of an expanded PPP and extended unemployment assistance would do the most measurable good — the first saves the institutions, the second saves those individuals the institutions can’t employ.

PPP in particular has been widely misunderstood and misused; many of the loans came too late and lasted only eight weeks, and rules about the size of included organizations accidentally barred many nonprofits, due to weird ways of calculating institutional size. But reforms are possible, says Lucy Sexton, a key figure in the Culture@3 calls, and the executive director of New Yorkers for Culture & Arts. She is part of the PPP Coalition, which suggests changes to the program and encourages citizens to add their shoulders to the wheel. “Additional federal relief is necessary for our sectors to bridge the gap between onset of this crisis and a return to reliable revenue,” the Coalition website says, soberly. But of course that’s actually the sound of the “last-to-reopen” businesses crying out for their lives. These are also the businesses that, if they survive, help a community revive. Sexton talks about how the arts regenerated New York after its bankrupt ’70s, how the Tribeca Film Festival got people back downtown after 9/11.

Sexton is politic when I ask her why word about these advocacy efforts hasn’t gotten out, but she also insists that the media are complicit. “One mistake we make is thinking that because we’re not seeing [public advocacy], it’s not happening,” she says. She, like other activists I spoke to, is fighting the same fight as the Be An Arts Hero folks: beating the bushes for celebrity names to link to the advocacy work. As I spoke to her, my fury that no multi-hyphenate superstar has stepped forward to be the face of the movement flagged. What is this, a game? Both advocates and editors are trying to find a Mendes to fight for the $877 billion that arts add to the American economy, to stand up for the incalculable well-being that the arts promote, to help the unemployed survive. The celebrity dependence on both sides of the equation is incredibly depressing. Are we really not capable of paying attention without a boldface name attached? Even if it’s difficult to focus, we can’t wait for the junket to start. It would be nice if some famous American person decided to get involved, sure. But I know my senators’ phone numbers too. And I have the time.