Arts and Culture, Part 2: So What Should Arts Advocates Say and Do Now?

A few days ago I wrote about the utter neglect of equity and wider awareness in arguments for their own funding being issued by “mainstream” arts advocates. “So what should they be saying and doing?” some readers asked. This is my answer. I’d be interested to know yours.

First, a little context. There’s a persistent myth that art and politics don’t mix, which is just plain silly if you consider that every work of art expresses a worldview, no matter how subtly, and these days, virtually every one is contested. Just think about the yearly December debate about Frank Loesser’s 1944 song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Just think about the perpetual moral panic over hip hop lyrics. For that matter, think about almost any cultural manifestation and you are bound to find someone who is offended, opposed, or outraged. Songs, films, plays, paintings, and other forms of creative expression are often the clearest and most powerful articulations of value in the public domain.

Now, look beyond individual works of art to the institutions that support, present, and disseminate them. In the U.S., their origin story says it all. The red-carpet arts’ status derives in part from epic efforts at purification and classification, segregating those enterprises deemed to be “high art” from the vulgarity of popular entertainments. Boundaries between the “excellent” and the popular were put in place near the turn of the last century by tastemakers anxious to shore up elite culture against an onslaught of immigrants. For instance, this argument was asserted by Henry Lee Higginson, 19th century founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a driving force behind purification from the orchestral repertoire of popular entertainments, who exhorted fellow plutocrats to “Educate, and save ourselves and our families and our money from the mobs!” The stink of that has persisted for 135 years.

Today, there are progressive curators and producers finding openings in elite nonprofit institutions for more diverse programming. Given the glacial pace of institutional change, there has been some progress. It certainly isn’t cool to talk like Henry Higginson anymore. But the underlying justifications for investment of public and private money in what are called the major institutions still resonate with his elite impulse: to preserve the “best” of “our patrimony” and make it accessible to everyone; to compete with other countries, cities, and institutions in prestige and public renown; to provide amenities that attract prosperity; and to make the arts integral to the dominant growth model that puts economic impact above all other criteria of value — ”The arts sector is an economic engine,” as I quoted in my previous essay.

The time is long past to reframe the sector’s raison d’etre in terms of real and inclusive social benefit, not something prescribed for people who know what’s good for others, but something that embodies people’s genuine desires.

So what should arts advocates say and do now? How can they reconceive their own roles to point to the deeper reasons for arts funding? How can they speak to the moment, rather than repeat tired and failed arguments?

Instead of the terribly inadequate COVID-19 Relief type of argument I last wrote about, here’s my script. Feel free to borrow it! And feel free to ask me how any of the initiatives listed here would work, as I’ve been thinking about it for years and have details galore.

The Arts Sector at A Crossroads: A New Understanding

We are at a turning-point in cultural history, deep into a time of not-knowing which can become a time of choice. How will we move our society away from over-consumption, indifference, and drive for profit at human and planetary expense and toward the values of caring, connection, and healing that are sustaining so many of us now? Within that inquiry are many specific questions for art: how will we dance with social distancing? Will community artists once again be able to bring neighbors together to design the sites of public memory that adorn their walls? Will people be able to gather to make plays or watch them, to sit together in a concert hall?

Public and private spending on COVID-19 relief, however flawed and bottlenecked, will certainly have an impact on the future availability of cultural funding no matter how far and deep the pandemic travels. We are concerned for artists, especially those whose livelihoods are contingent even in the best of times. We are concerned for all those we work with in allied jobs, sustaining artistic process and infrastructure. We are concerned for the future of our organizations and institutions. One characteristic of this pandemic is that many things previously thought impossible have proven feasible in the face of undeniable necessity. This inspires us to say that the arts sector must do what was thought impossible and change radically with the times.

We want to see forgivable loans to nonprofits, an easing of grant requirements, increased funding for nonprofit cultural organizations, and much more support for independent artists unable to work under current conditions. The new revenue sources we offer below could do much of this. These would be our first priorities if our main goal were to preserve the sector as it has been.

But we recognize that this moment calls us to put ourselves second, for two reasons. First, many of the communities in which culture is much more than a frill — where it is precious heritage passed down through the generations, sustenance in the face of challenges, the crucible where people work out shared history, values, and aspirations — these have been hardest-hit by the pandemic due to preexisting economic and social conditions. The death tolls say it plainly: those who cannot afford to shelter in place, those with endemic health challenges such as diabetes and high blood pressure, predominantly black and brown people, are dying in much greater numbers.

Second, the old support system will no longer serve. It was based on competition, with only a fraction of important work being funded, so most of us spent far too much time and energy seeking support, privileging the groups who could assign that task to professional staff that will now surely be reduced. The focus was on competing for awards based on specific artistic works: performances, exhibits, etc. But the future will demand that the means of cultural participation and creation be available to all. To the extent resources are even scarcer than usual, a much larger portion must go to supporting access: space (physical and virtual), equipment, communications media, artists skilled in using these things in community, training, and so on.

For our sector, the pandemic has been a wake-up call. We understand that the virus is connected to human practices that put short-term profit ahead of the sanctity of life. Climate crisis has multiplied risk as habitat has been destroyed and animals forced closer to towns and cities, carrying the virus. To the extent we have contributed, we now recognize we must take responsibility.

The value our sector offers society in this moment is clear. Human survival depends on carrying our stories of resilience into the future. The beauty and meaning artists create offers care and consolation. For the isolated, it is sometimes the only consolation. Our roles are essential in helping people come to know each other, to share their truths and skills, and to change our collective story to change the world. Our work turns a crowd of people into a community of shared experience and meaning. What public priority can be more urgent at this time?

To support our ability to continue this work, we urge you to augment and adjust CARES programs to ensure that they are adequate, efficient, and fair. National loan and paycheck protection programs must be expanded so that artists, as with all workers, will find rapid, meaningful, and equitable help throughout this time. We also urge you to provide substantial supplemental funding to federal and state cultural agencies, earmarked to support individuals and groups in need.

Beyond these measures, thinking ahead is crucial. We must take major steps to realign and strengthen the cultural sector to respond to the crucial demands emerging from this turning-point.

(1) A NEW PUBLIC SERVICE JOBS PROGRAM

The 1930s Works Progress Administration of the New Deal (WPA) and the 1970s Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) supported public service jobs as part of economic and social recovery. Artists and creative workers were a major part of both, contributing greatly to national awareness and morale, helping to build community when it was most needed. Public service jobs must be a major part of the public spending that should follow the pandemic. Ideas for a “new WPA” are in circulation, building on the work of artists in creative aging, arts and health, after-school arts programs, community-based public art projects, arts in correctional institutions, and much more. We stand ready to assist in conceiving a new public service employment program to address contemporary conditions, ensuring that funding is adequate, and collaborating with the artists who fill these jobs.

(2) INVESTMENT IN BELONGING AND CULTURAL CITIZENSHIP

Many Americans feel deprived of full belonging on account of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, ability, orientation, or other categories that experience social exclusion. This has never been clearer than in the stories of suffering and the death-tolls of the pandemic. When everyone belongs, everyone has access to the same quality of care, the same freedom of expression, the same stake in working toward a future we desire. Race, heritage, class, and gender have amplified shameful differentials in caring and support during this time. With meaningful support, artists will be key to healing the gulf in belonging the pandemic has fully exposed. Lip-service has been given to diversity for too long; we must all recognize it as the wellspring of culture and democracy, and advance it as such.

When people are again able to come together, especially given the likelihood that many cultural organizations will have been forced to close their doors, public support will be essential to community-based centers that engage people directly in art-making and art experiences, integrating their own experiences of the pandemic — simultaneously health, climate, and economic crisis — working with them to nurture resilience and to stand for democratic cultural and economic values. Community-based arts groups across the nation need support to do this essential work. Public investment can also repurpose disused spaces such as vacant lots and empty storefronts, helping to revitalize depressed communities with creative public presence.

Whether hosted by neighborhood organizations or arts groups themselves, we need long-term artists’ residencies in every community, supporting artists with experience and skill in community cultural development in reweaving social and cultural fabric, strengthening community for the challenges to come. Direct creative participation must be integral to any new program: economic recovery has to include cultural recovery. And our organizations and institutions must be full partners in this effort. Indeed, to the extent our role has been to steward facilities and resources, we must now turn to sharing them as well.

(3) SUPPORT CROSS-SECTOR COLLABORATIONS

An ongoing social challenge is translating important information from the language of experts into modes people can understand and engage. We are eager to enter into cross-sector partnerships with non-arts organizations, deploying artistic skills to ground issues in lived experience and tell necessary stories. The isolation of the art world must end. Partnership support is needed for our sector to collaborate with sustainable community development, social justice, and environmental groups, for example. We call for a new fund to nurture such partnerships through convenings, grants, and technical assistance, closely documenting and evaluating this work to inspire even more effective collaborations.

(4) SUPPORT RAPID ARTISTIC RESPONSE TO NATURAL AND CIVIL EMERGENCIES

From HIV to Katrina to Sandy to COVID-19, artists and creative organizers serve communities facing floods, pandemics, or civil emergencies. Support is needed to equip artists to respond with creativity and sensitivity to situations that leave people afraid and confused; and to prepare relief agencies and responders to support and console affected communities with the power of artistic engagement. We stand ready to collaborate in developing and delivering these programs; meaningful public resources are necessary to sustain them.

(5) CREATE NEW REVENUE SOURCES

An overwhelming majority of artists have lost income. Many work in communities under stress long before the pandemic, and few have an economic cushion. Some people like to pit cultural funding against types of support they consider more important, but we are not making a claim to be more deserving than other sectors. Instead, we urge you to consider two innovative revenue ideas that would have no negative impact but could support all these initiatives.

First, a tax on advertising. Projected media advertising expenditure in United States in 2020 above $260 billion. Buyers of ad space in publications, on broadcast media, on the internet, and on billboards pay no taxes on their purchases. Before the digital era, businesses typically allocated 20% of budgets for advertising; today, advertising expenditures often reaches 80%. A tax of only 1% would generate $2.6 billion (more than 21 times the current annual National Endowment for the Arts budget) to support creative workers for the public good.

Second, a tax on blank recording media and recording devices. Even as digital recording expands, the 2019 revenues of just one medium — recordable discs — equaled $2 billion. The retail audio equipment market totaled more than $23 billion. A small tax could support public services arts jobs or cross-sector collaborations, returning some of the social benefit of these expenditures to the artists and creative workers who supply the material that is recorded. This would also be partial compensation for the forms of piracy that deprive artists of revenue for their original creations.

We understand that powerful and highly profitable industries would be modestly affected by these new taxes, and that they have spent vast sums to avoid paying their fair share. Things have changed. We are ready to change with them.

Last month I had fun imagining that the surreality show we wake to every day were a different movie, suggesting a plot and cast I’d like to see. I’d be very happy if the institutions navigating via the rearview mirror faced forward to see what may be coming and used this moment to plot a new course. Indeed, I’ve been saying for a long time that I would consider it a miracle and Godsend if just one prominent figure among the mainstream arts advocates stood up and said any of this. I hereby offer all help desired to anyone who wants to try.

I have no doubt that this is a turning-point. I just don’t know if we’ll turn toward more and more terrible measures to preserve the old order and privilege, or toward a new order of justice, community, and love. The arts sector could have a huge role to play that in that turning, but it has to turn first.

Dee Dee Bridgewater, “Compared to What.”

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about arlenegoldbard.com.

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