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August 28, 2020: On Becoming A Priority

Good day,

Here in the United States, the unconventional conventions of the two political parties are over and to no one’s great surprise the words “arts,” or “culture” were not uttered, at least I didn’t hear it, during the combined eight days of speeches about this country’s present state of crises and its re-imagined future.

But a sadder observation is that still not many other people in power, celebrity or great influence are speaking out on behalf of arts and culture and the great need in getting assistance, whether for artist survival, for organizational solvency or for initiatives that could help them all.

Until audiences can return to these arts centers and organizations safely, these not-for-profit institutions that have helped define and enrich communities remain in jeopardy, as well as armies of artists, both freelance and not. A half-year into the pandemic — and counting, big support, big names and big ideas are still lacking. Not much help has arrived since the spring.

The American response stands in stark contrast to Britain, which had a string of cultural powerhouse names and formidable figures — including a major royal — drumbeating for special government support to the arts during the pandemic — resulting in a nearly $2 billion life preserver.

The United States has not had that type of high-profile effort, certainly not with that level of result. As the pandemic stretches into the rest of the year — and perhaps beyond — things are disturbingly quiet on this Western front. So it was a bit of a shock and awe to see Brit James Corden speak out in significant way proposing that streaming services should help the theater industry recover from the pandemic — one in which they greatly benefited financially.

"I think some acknowledgement of the volume of arts and artists that have come from that environment, I think it would be really in their best interests to try and support theater in that way, the Amazons and the Apples,” he said in a story reported in Variety.

You can make a pretty strong case that the not-for-profit arts groups collectively act as the equivalent as the “research and development” wings of the for-profit entertainment industries — except that these vast corporations that encompass film, television, streaming entertainment and games don’t have to pay for the high expense of developing these artists.

But forecasts are getting increasingly dire for the arts economy, as reported in Forbes Magazine.

“The longer term impact of massive layoffs and revenue bleeds [in the arts sector] is yet to be felt, with the squeeze on arts and culture depleting our overall quality of life. The fine and performing arts industries are bearing the brunt, with estimated losses of nearly 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales, according to “Lost art: Measuring COVID-19’s devastating impact on America’s creative economy,” a report released today by the Brookings Institution, an American research group founded in 1916 on Think Tank Row in Washington, D.C.”

Yes, there have been efforts to lobby government. And some P.R. attempts have been made, too, such as the video put out by the NEA, which so far has given a modest $75 million in relief funds to arts organizations.

(The testimonial video could have been a stronger if its “singing” stepped beyond the “choir” to include those in diverse fields to show that the arts are vital for their sectors, too — people like Tim Cook of Apple, Mary Barra of General Motors, LeBron James of the L.A. Lakers or even Dr. Anthony Fauci.)

State governments, commissions and universities are also pumping millions of dollars into arts assistance. But it's all small potatoes for an industry that makes up 4.5 percent of the GNP and second only to retail as the most powerful economic driver of this economy, facts that have yet to become a mantra.

The good news is that there’s data that the public is willing to support arts funding initiatives, not necessarily for the film and television industry, but for not-for-profit arts groups. Variety reports a survey taken in early August that after sit-down restaurants with 80 percent support, respondents gave the next level of thumbs up to federal aid to museums at 60 percent, followed by hotels, and then at 57 percent for non-profit arts organizations — even more than the airline industry. But this support has to be harnessed.

There are some Congressional initiatives waiting in the wings but movement isn’t happening right now with Congress out of session.

“It’s shocking that they don’t just stay until they figure it out,” Audrey Fix Schaefer of the National Independent Venue Association told Variety. "We had broken through to have three pieces of legislation under consideration, which I’m told is phenomenal for an organization that didn’t exist in March: the Save Our Stages Act, the Restart Act and the Encores Act. But even though we’ve gotten a lot of momentum and support, none of it matters until Congress comes together and comes to an agreement to have an overall COVID relief package.”

Until then, voices matter. And the bigger the better.

-- Frank Rizzo


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