Performing Arts Workers Testify to Congress: Arts and Culture Are in Peril

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Performing Arts Workers Testify to Congress: Arts and Culture Are in Peril
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The United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

On January 19, the House Small Business Committee held a remote hearing, “The Power, Peril, and Promise of the Creative Economy,” in which performing arts advocates spoke to members of congress on the needs of their industry: a sector that has been in danger of collapse since March of 2020. The hearing had been partially organized by Be An #ArtsHero, a volunteer-run organization that defines itself as, “an intersectional grassroots campaign for proportionate relief to the arts and culture sector of the American economy.”

Carson Elrod, co-founder of Be An #ArtsHero, told Observer that the organization began as a viral hashtag campaign in the summer of 2020 to educate people on just how badly the creative economy had been hurt by the pandemic. They wanted people to know how important it was that congress offer proportional relief. According to the National Endowment for the Arts and Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts and culture industry contributed nearly a trillion dollars a year to GDP in 2019; however, during the pandemic, this sector had not received the kind of proportional relief given to other industries.

In the summer of 2020, with Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) about to come to an end, Be An #ArtsHero’s volunteers–who had individually lost work as a result of the pandemic–were looking through their contact lists to find people with large platforms willing to strategically tweet their message about proportional relief for arts workers. They gave their group its name because The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or ‘Heroes’ Act, a pandemic stimulus package, was being considered in the Senate. The organizers thought that the act would pass by Labor Day of 2020, and they hoped it would contain a relief component for the arts and culture sector. But Labor Day passed, congress was deadlocked, and FPUC benefits ended. It was at this point that Be An #ArtsHero decided to change from a social media campaign into a lobbying group.

Be An #ArtsHero’s organizers contacted senators up for reelection to remind them that every state had tens of thousands of arts workers who helped generate billions for state economies. They went from office to office giving the same “Power, Peril, Promise” presentation: telling senators how big the creative economy is, how much danger it was in, and how high its rate of return could be if properly invested in.

Describing the “promise” part of their pitch, Carson Elrod, actor and co-founder of Be An #ArtsHero, told Observer that he believes that art could be what anchors the American economy post-pandemic. “There’s going to be so much pent-up appetite for Americans to come out of their homes and into community with each other.”

Holding the congressional hearing was Be An #ArtsHero’s long-term lobbying goal. Over the course of the pandemic, the organization came a long way. Where once they got celebrity contacts to tweet about the needs of arts workers, now they have spoken to congress about specific federal dollars that could be earmarked for their sector.

Speaking to Observer, Matthew-Lee Erlbach, another co-founder of Be An #ArtsHero, pointed to two billion dollars in funds from Shuttered Venue Operators Grants that can get reappropriated for the performing arts. During the hearing, Carson Elrod lobbied for a super package of legislation, including The Creative Economy Revitalization Act and The 21st Century Federal Writers Project. They are also pushing for the creation of a Secretary for Arts and Culture in the presidential cabinet.

Their prolific, multi-pronged lobbying goals have the scope and spirit of a 30s-era New Deal-style program. Amidst the failure of Democratic leadership to pass the already watered-down relief provisions in the Build Back Better Act, Be An #ArtsHero’s agenda seems highly ambitious. The organizers, however, are undaunted. “If there’s a problem that needs the kitchen sink thrown at it then you throw the kitchen sink at it,” Carson Elrod told Observer.

These organizers take inspiration from the National Independent Venue Association, also present at the congressional hearing, which successfully lobbied congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act and enabled shuttered venues to apply for grants worth 45% of their lost revenue. Elrod calls its passage a “Revolutionary moment in United States history where congress, in a bipartisan way, looked at the creative economy and understood that these independent venues anchored dynamic local economies. They needed help, or they were going to disappear forever.”

The January 19 hearing itself included four witnesses: alongside Carson Elrod was Nataki Garrett, Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Sandra Karas, Secretary-Treasurer of Actors’ Equity Association; and Raeanne Presley, Co-Owner of Presley’s Theater in Branson, Missouri, and representative from the National Independent Venue Association. In his testimony, Elrod spoke of how far the performing arts were from being fully recovered from the pandemic. He described having plays he had been cast in for the 2021/2022 season canceled due to COVID. Nataki Garrett spoke at the hearing of feeling haunted by the employees she’d had to lay off during the pandemic, and the devastation that a lack of funding in the arts and arts education has on artists, on children in school, and on local economies. Funding the arts was a no brainer, she said during the hearing. “It’s recognizing a simple fact that the arts and the artists drive local economies and at the same time lift people out of darkness.”

The witnesses overall framed relief for the arts as a bipartisan issue, impacting businesses and unionized employees alike. Carson Elrod, speaking to Observer, brought that same cross-party framing into future plans for Be An #ArtsHero. He described wanting to develop the group into a big tent membership-based organization, like the ACLU or NRA in size and scope. The organization, he said, could include anyone who considered themselves an arts worker, from theatre owners to theatre concessions workers. Hollywood directors like JJ Abrams could join, as could IATSE stagehands. He described an organization that could become an easy way for anyone in the sector to get politically involved.

Matthew-Lee Erlbach described Be An #ArtsHero as a group which can change how Americans think of the arts and artists. He told Observer, “We’ve either been considered coastal elites or lazy layabouts, when the truth of the matter is we’re largely middle class or working-class people who work really hard and happen to be extremely passionate about what we do and are highly skilled. The challenge is rewriting that narrative.”

While the arts have been a divisive political issue historically, Erlbach sees the arts as a means of bringing the two parties together. Funding the arts, he says, isn’t a political issue, but rather an economic necessity for the nation’s small businesses. “Our institutions are stars that anchor this interdependent local commercial ecosystem,” he told Observer. “One of these stars implodes, all of the arts related businesses, not to mention retail, transportation, hospitality—that all gets sucked into that black hole as well.”

After nearly two years of the pandemic, Americans already know what a nation without live performing arts looks like. For Be An #ArtsHero, returning to that devastated landscape isn’t an option. The pandemic has already changed the narrative around the arts and artists, and it is their hope that their lobbying, in shaping that transforming narrative, can bring much-needed relief to the sector.

Performing Arts Workers Testify To Congress: Arts And Culture Are In Peril

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