July 31, 2020: On Star Power
On the day that the Paycheck Protection Program is slated to end in the U.S. -- and the devastating effect that would have on the arts and culture community, I found myself thinking about an article I read in New York magazine this week and how it echoed what many of my colleagues have been talking about for several months.
Sometimes an article just nails it, with facts, figures and elegant prose.
First some background: Since early May I’ve been sharing stories from the U.K. about high-profile arts leaders going to the media to put headline-making pressure on the politicians there to save English cultural heritage as arts institutions large and small struggled to survive during the pandemic.
This seemed to me a full-tilt, p.r. blitz to make sure the vulnerable arts sector was not overlooked.
After all, other European countries — as early as March — had big-number financial packages specifically designed for arts and cultural groups. But where was the commitment to help in the U.K., these celeb leaders asked loudly again and again and again. (It helps to keep on drum beating in a campaign.)
These names included, among others, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, producer Cameron Mackintosh, director Sam Mendes and, for good measure, Prince Charles.
A nearly $2 billion package to help the cultural sector was announced earlier this month and whose details were just released this week.
Yes, unions and other arts groups did big media pushes as well with demands and detailed plans. But it was the big names who brought the spotlight to the issue
Meanwhile, here in the U.S. the arts alarm bells were —and still are — ringing. A third of U.S. museums are reported to be in jeopardy. Americans for the Arts says that 12,000 arts organizations in the U.S. aren’t confident they can weather the storm. Freelancers are at the end of their ropes.
But so far no sweeping rescue plan specifically addressing the needs of the arts and cultural community has yet emerged.
An article in American Theatre magazine spells out in cold clear numbers what the arts economy means to the U.S. The article titled “An Open Letter to the Senators of the 116th Congress: Fund the Arts” by Matthew-Lee Erlbacl began:
“The $877 billion our industry generated last fiscal year is about to disappear. The 4.5% we added to our GDP—about to vaporize. We are second only to retail as the most powerful economic driver of this economy, boasting exports of $72.6 billion and an annual growth rate of 4.16 percent , nearly double that of the U.S. economy as a whole at 2.2 percent. Without your immediate action for financial relief by Aug. 1, we will collapse, and the result will be an economic cataclysm.”
Strong stuff. Still, the arts remain inconsequential for many political leaders.
Valiant efforts are being made to change that. There are indeed service organizations and arts groups such as Theatre Communications Group, Americans for the Arts and many others who are speaking out, offering not just pleas, but plans.
But maybe not quite the p.r. pressure.
Unlike England, we don’t have a royal card to play. But we do have stars and icons.
Where are they?
That’s what Helen Shaw was writing about in her terrific New York magazine article, “Does Arts-Funding Advocacy Need a Famous Face?”
“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.”
Ms. Shaw doesn’t mention any names but one can imagine an Oprah, Meryl, Barbra, Misha, Michelle getting national attention. Where is the arts equivalent of a Gov. Cuomo? Perhaps a Rocco or an Oskar? Bring in Tom Hanks for the soft touch. Pacino for the rage. Brad Pitt for the sizzle.
Still, there’s a group that may not have legend status just yet but who are doing more public husting than almost anyone.
Be an Arts Hero is a group made up of actors led by Billy Porter (“Pose,” “Kinky Boots”) who are stepping up. Be An #ArtsHero" is described as “an intersectional grassroots campaign to get the U.S. Senate to pass emergency Arts relief.” They’re out there on talk shows, on the news, on social media.
Many arts and cultural groups in the U.S. simply won’t make it without a life line and bold action, such as “A New Deal” for the Arts or a WPA initiative. That’s why government funding is a vital issue until performing arts spaces re-open, until audiences return, until a vaccine is found.
Until then, we look to the stars.
— FRANK RIZZO