It would hardly seem necessary to state: A life in the arts – in a theater, in a studio, at a writing desk, on a film crew – constitutes honest-to-goodness work. And yet planting this truism in America’s consciousness has proved such a thorny challenge that a whole new labor movement has been spawned to drive it home.
Built on the concept of the “arts worker” – an immense labor category representing 8.8 million Americans doing everything from designing clothing to sweeping museum floors – this movement asserts that the arts are as foundational as farming or manufacturing. And its focus is not so much public relations as it is survival, an aim reinforced daily by the financial devastation the coronavirus pandemic has spread throughout the nation’s creative economy.
Organized by arts workers themselves, the movement is taking root in a spate of grass-roots groups, some of them, like Be an #ArtsHero and Artists for Economic Transparency, formed in the wake of the pandemic itself. Over a matter of days in December, a separate campaign spearheaded by Tony Award-winning director Rachel Chavkin and stage director Jenny Koons enlisted 10,000 supporters to tell the incoming Biden administration of the needs of an industry “largely left behind by the federal government.”
That there is political power still to be tapped in this sector – identified in a Brookings Institution report over the summer as contributing $1.7 trillion to the U.S. economy – was dramatized in December. Included in the $900 billion stimulus bill signed into law was an unprecedented $15 billion aid package for live entertainment venues threatened with extinction by the nearly year-long shutdown. The “Save Our Stages” legislation, introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, was largely engineered by another new group, the National Independent Venue Association, a coalition of 3,000 small nightclubs and larger amphitheaters.
That victory has energized those in the arts field who are finding their footing as – in the Capitol Hill sense – political actors.
“It’s spreading like wildfire,” Jenny Grace Makholm said of the arts worker advocacy. The New York-based actress formed Be an #ArtsHero over the summer with actors Brooke Ishibashi and Carson Elrod and actor-playwright Matthew-Lee Erlbach. The nonprofit group, with seed money of only several thousand dollars and about 100 volunteers, is emerging as a leading voice alongside established groups such as Actors’ Equity – the actors and stage managers union – for federal help for unemployed and struggling arts workers. The group is even writing its own bill – Defend Arts Workers Now – for an additional $44 billion in relief to arts workers and arts groups.
“We need to make sure we’re advocating for the arts workers along with the institutions. That’s what they’ve done so brilliantly,” said Heather Hitchens, president and chief executive of the American Theatre Wing and former executive director of the New York State Council on the Arts. “Their jolt of fresh perspective is really important,” adds Hitchens, who has been lending her expertise to the group.
Something perverse has taken hold in recent years in mainstream attitudes about support for the arts: a sense among many, and especially those in national policymaking circles, that the arts are a luxury. (The relative pittance – $162 million annually each – for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, attests to this misperception.) Concurrently, a belief persists widely that anyone in the arts should be content doing what they love, in lieu of a decent salary. Across the nation, too, lingering memories of the battles 30 years ago over provocative NEA-funded works has left politicians and arts leaders gun-shy about seeking increased government aid.
The new artist activism, emerging not so much from celebrity entertainers as from rank-and-file actors and others, reflects a growing determination by some in the creative community to place their existential concerns before the public. The effort has started with the notion of painters and parking valets, concert violinists and concessionaires all contributing as arts workers – and making up about 4 percent of the nation’s employment, according to the Brookings report by Richard Florida and Michael Seman.
“With the word ‘artist,’ sometimes people think that they need to be signing up for a life of degradation and exploitation,” said Elrod, who acts onstage and in television. “Like, ‘I brought this on myself – I became an artist, signed up for low wages and financial and career insecurity.’ Just by adding the word ‘worker’ to a regular rank-and-file artist, we hope that that gives artists more of a sense of identity as labor, and that the art they create is worthy of a living wage.”
Stitching a multifaceted patchwork of creative fields into a cohesive political force is an arduous task. How does one align the concerns of a dancer in a corps de ballet with those of a museum curator?
Still, the messages of groups like Be An #ArtsHero seem to be gaining currency. In Anchorage, for example, Codie Costello, president and chief operating officer of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, reached out to the Be An #ArtsHero team when an array of hard-pressed arts groups in Alaska’s largest city sought advice. They wanted guidance on how to forge stronger connections with state lawmakers during the shutdown; one initiative that came out of that was an Artworks Day in Anchorage on Oct 3.
“Part of what happens for arts groups is, we’re experts at what we do on the stage, but as for aligning ourselves with those who are experts at advocacy, there has been a gap, locally,” Costello said. “And we’re not unique in that.”
The pandemic, it seems, has given activist arts workers an opportunity to develop new skills, such as connecting with influential Washington lawmakers and setting up a tax-exempt lobbying and policymaking organization.
“It took us forever to just to be able to open up a bank account,” Elrod said, half-jokingly.
Erlbach added that learning to be an effective advocate is itself a positive act.
“Part of giving people value is going to them and saying, ‘What do you need? How do you need to be made a legislative priority?’ ” he said. “That’s what arts workers, united, can do at the federal level and at the municipal level – give ourselves a sense of intrinsic value.”
Veteran Broadway actors Karen Olivo (“Moulin Rouge! The Musical”) and Eden Espinosa (“Wicked”) also saw the pause in performing as a chance to encourage change – in their case, within the business itself. They formed Artists for Economic Transparency last year as they shared their frustration over the treatment of Broadway workers in general and, specifically, over what they said were contributions to conservative political candidates by Broadway producers, in part using money earned from their performances.
“We felt we both unknowingly contributed,” Espinosa said, adding that they’ve vowed not to put themselves in similar working situations again.
“A lot of us have been awake for some time, but it’s time to get out of bed now.”
Whether they are organizing to improve their working lives – or seeking to alter national policy – these performers are recasting themselves in entirely new public roles.
“The work that we do as lobbyists now is very different than other lobbyists that we’re working alongside,” Ishibashi said.
“We know we are the ones we’re fighting for.”