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Artist Ruth Reeves and an assistant working on a mosaic mural for the Works Progress Administration in 1940. (Shalat. Ruth Reeves, 1940 June 10. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, circa 1920-1965. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

The coronavirus pandemic has upended nearly every industry, and the arts are no exception. Over the last six months, all corners of the creative economy, from freelance artists to top-tier museums, have been impacted by financial losses, sharp drops in sales and attendance, canceled events, and unforeseen expenses.

As the arts scramble to adapt to a new normal of virtual exhibitions and timed ticketing, questions loom over the future of the cultural sector — and whether the next administration can lead its recovery. In advance of today’s presidential election, Americans for the Arts has outlined 16 specific actions that the next administration can take to help boost the creative economy — many of which can be achieved through executive action, without additional federal funding. 

The Creative Workforce Proposal, which has more than 2,100 endorsements from organizations and individuals across the 50 states and Puerto Rico, hinges on the idea that supporting the arts will stimulate the nation as a whole. Citing examples of historic policies from both sides of the aisle — President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and President Nixon’s Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) — Americans for the Arts proposes deploying creative workers in fields beyond the arts, including community development, infrastructure, and public health.

The plan also focuses on the integration of the artistic workforce into existing federal programs through specific actions — such as expanding or redirecting dollars for AmeriCorps toward cultural intervention and adjusting the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to include a grants program for the arts.

Change should start at the White House itself, the proposal argues. Through executive action within the first 100 days, the president should create positions within the executive branch to coordinate activities relates to arts and culture, and direct federal departments to commission artists and community arts organizations. (It’s worth remembering that this hasn’t been a priority for the current administration: the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which advised the White House on cultural issues since 1982, disappeared under Trump after all its members resigned in 2017 in protest of the president’s comments following the “Unite the Right” rally.)

The arts sector is an $878 billion industry that supports 5.1 million jobs and represents 4.5% of the nation’s economy, making it a major economic driver. And despite deep losses during the COVID-19 pandemic — two-thirds of the nation’s artists and creative workers are unemployed three out of four artists have used their creative practice to address community needs, according to research by Americans for the Arts.

That benevolence can be put to good use, the organization believes, and artists should be compensated. There are myriad areas where they can contribute, from mental health to business innovation. The new administration should provide funding and guidelines for states, localities, and tribal governments to commission public health campaigns from artists, and direct insurance companies to include arts prescriptions and healing practices as covered treatment options.

“The arts are part of the heart and soul of America, and creativity has always been essential to recovery — there can be no recovery without it,” Americans for the Arts President and CEO Robert L. Lynch told Hyperallergic. “To thrive post-pandemic, the United States must leverage its creative power, putting creative workers to work rebuilding, reimagining, unifying, and healing communities in every state and territory, as well as within tribal lands.”

Another of the proposal’s recommendations may appear deceptively simple: adjusting existing policies to recognize creative workers as workers. Through executive action and in partnership with Congress, Americans for the Arts asks for an overhaul of “outdated employment, insurance, food, and housing policies to make them more inclusive of the more than 55 million independent workers.” Examples of actionable policy measures include extending small business programs and unemployment insurance benefits to self-employed artists, independent contractors, and entrepreneurs; and including independent workers in policies related to affordable food and housing.

Americans for the Arts officially submitted its creative workforce proposal to both the Biden and Trump campaigns last month. According to a spokesperson, neither candidate has reacted yet.

The possibility of a Democratic victory holds some hope for the arts, as Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris both have a positive track record of supporting the industry, and the 2020 Democratic Platform includes an arts plank. In contrast, the 2020 Republican Platform “did not include any supportive language about the arts or arts education,” according to a statement released in August by the Americans for the Arts Action Fund.

Read Americans for the Arts’s 16-point proposal in full here.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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