Fashion studio rendering, Otis College (image courtesy Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Cheney)

LOS ANGELES — Last Thursday, the Otis College of Art & Design released its 2021 Report on the Creative Economy. Begun in 2007, the annual report, prepared in partnership with Beacon Economics, examines the creative economy of Los Angeles and California across five fields, including fine arts and performing arts, architecture, entertainment and digital media, creative products, and fashion. Predictably, the report chronicled the deep losses experienced by these sectors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, but also offered some hopeful solutions for rebuilding and transforming these industries with diversity and equity in mind. 

Amidst the wealth of data included in the 200-page report, significant findings include that between February and December 2020 total job loss in the creative economy hit 13.3% across California (compared to 8.3% nationwide) and 23.5% in Los Angeles County. Statewide, 175,000 jobs were lost in the creative economy, with almost 110,000 of those in LA County. The lion’s share of 128,000 were unsurprisingly in entertainment, but almost 16,000 of those jobs lost were in the fine and performing arts. Over $140 billion was lost in creative economic output across California.

Alongside Otis’s report, arts advocacy organization Californians for the Arts released two statewide COVID-19 “Economic Impact” surveys, the result of interviews with almost 1,000 arts workers and over 600 creative businesses. One survey focused on artists and cultural workers showed that 83% of survey respondents expressed that the pandemic had impacted their employment situation, and 88% reported that they had lost income or other arts-related revenues due to the pandemic. For arts educators, 90% have lost income due to the pandemic. People of color were also disproportionately affected, with 100% of African American identified respondents noting a loss of income.

Alarmingly, 20% of respondents said they were considering leaving the state as a result of the economic downturn. “We are facing a California creativity crisis and what we’re calling a pending cultural depression,” warned Julie Baker, executive director of Californians for the Arts, at a virtual release event for the report that streamed last Thursday.

According to the other survey focused on creative organizations and businesses, 79% of respondents have discontinued or reduced programs and 16% are not sure if they can survive if programs do not resume before April 1. The performing arts have been especially hard hit, lacking even a basic plan for reopening.

“We need to find a different way to fund the arts, because at this moment … 
multiple arts agencies across Los Angeles are fighting to keep their budgets in place,” said another speaker Gustavo Herrera, executive director of Arts for LA, an organization that advocates for equitable access to the arts. “And these are the organizations that are most connected to the community, and if we can’t get our local arts agencies funding to be able to continue to support the arts workers, then how can we call ourselves the creative capital of the world?”

Baker argued that artists and the arts are essential to getting back to some sense of normalcy, a sentiment echoed by other speakers at the event. “We strongly believe that artists are second responders,” she said. “We’ve all turned to artists to provide the hope and healing that we need, and it’s finally time that we recognize that they are essential.”

Following the dire economic findings related to the pandemic, the Otis report outlines recommendations to rebuild the state’s creative economy. These include continuing and enhancing the network of relief and aid programs that have kept artists, many of them self-employed, afloat over the past year. They also advocate for uniform statewide reopening guidelines “that accounts for the different levels of risk related to different activities, and that can be modified as conditions change,” as well as fee waivers to allow for greater flexibility, thereby avoiding regulatory obstacles to reopening. California has had some of the strictest pandemic lockdown protocols in the nation, and, with a few exceptions, museums across the state have remained closed for the better part of the past year.

At the virtual release event, speakers discussed their reactions to the report’s findings and outlined challenges and solutions moving forward. State Senator Ben Allen said he is working to implement a statewide Creative Corps. Inspired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the program is “intended to fuel positivity, regain public trust, and inspire safe and healthy behavior across California’s diverse populations,” by funding artists whose work deals with the pandemic. California Governor Gavin Newsom has put forth a proposal allocating $5 million for the pilot in 2020-21 and $10 million in 2021-22. 

Jason Foster, the president and COO of Destination Crenshaw, a civic project aimed at celebrating and empowering the predominantly African American Crenshaw District, noted that programs like this were successful only insofar as the communities they are meant to reach benefitted from them. “Our chief export from the Crenshaw community is our creative arts,” he said. “It is the creatives that actually generate the local economy and stimulate the local neighborhood. My only concern about programs like this is if they actually reach the Black communities of Los Angeles and I think that that is the genesis of why Destination Crenshaw exists.”

Noting how the protests and discussions about racial justice that have exploded over the past year have been picked up in the art wold, the panelists remarked that equity and inclusion were crucial to rebuilding the arts in California, not just getting back to normal, but changing what normal means. “I think that’s a silver lining, all of these conversations around racial equity are coming to a head, and they’re coming right into the center of our creative community,” said Herrera. “We’re at a point where we need to make a decision. Are we going to push to build back the status quo or are we going to push to fight for a just recovery for the creative communities?”

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.