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Georgette Seabrooke, detail of "Recreation in Harlem" (1936), mural for Harlem Hospital Center in New York City (image via Wikipedia)

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A new bipartisan bill in Congress proposes a $300 million federal grants and commissions program for art workers. The Creative Economy Revitalization Act (CERA) is a joint effort between hundreds of cultural organizations to stimulate the creative economy through public art projects across the United States. 

Introduced in the House of Representatives on August 13, the CERA is modeled after the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), two of the largest federal jobs programs of the 20th century. The bill amends the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2017, which stimulated public employment by $3.3 billion, to incorporate the program for fiscal years 2022 to 2024. The Department of Labor, in consultation with the National Endowment for the Arts, will award select individuals and organizations with payments dependent on required labor, with a 5% cap on administrative costs. 

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-NM), who brought the bill to the House floor, is backed by Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-CA), with Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA), Rosa Delauro (D-CT), and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) signed on as co-sponsors. On September 28, the bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM). It has received endorsements from 175 arts organizations, including the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, the Freelancers Union, AFL-CIO’s Department of Professional Employees, PEN America, and the US Department of Arts and Culture.

“We herald the bold and decisive leadership of Representative Leger Fernández to address the needs of the 5.2 million American Arts Workers who contribute $919 billion to this country’s GDP,” said Jennifer Makholm and Carson Elrod, co-founders of Be an #ArtsHero and Arts Workers Unite. “There is no American economic recovery without a robust Arts & Culture recovery.”

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, nearly two thirds of the US creative workforce — about 2.7 million workers — were laid off, furloughed, or forced into unstable labor environments, with the economy’s arts and cultural sector dipping by $15.2 billion. Creative jobs dropped 53% between late 2019 and mid 2020, recovering only halfway since then, and the prolonged pandemic continues to threaten re-openings of art spaces. 

For that reason, the CERA defines creative workers broadly, as any individuals with professional experience in the artistic production of “ideas, content, goods, and services.” Entities encompass states, local areas or boards, tribes, or nonprofits employing creative workers. Eligible projects include outdoor performances and art fairs, visual and written media focused on US history (including first responders and marginalized communities), public utilities like benches and tables, and community-focused murals and sculptures. Candidates must sign an agreement to maintain all labor domestically in accordance with union contracts. This ostensibly means that many undocumented and migrant artists who are unauthorized for work will be ineligible despite their contributions to the creative economy. 

The passing of this $300 million grant program has potential to serve as a benchmark for further arts funding, albeit with a low price tag. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt granted $27 million for the WPA’s Federal Project Number One in 1935 — the equivalent of $540 million today — to provide 40,000 artists, performers, musicians, and writers with full-time employment. He accomplished this partially through a progressive income tax that drew ire from wealthy capitalists like newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. 

While President Joe Biden allocated $470 million for the arts in the federal stimulus earlier this spring, the latest $1 trillion infrastructure bill — and Senate Democrats’ budget blueprint — does not incorporate art workers, even after entertainment industry leaders called on Biden to recognize the culture sector as a central component of infrastructure. This kind of recognition could go a long way in expanding public art programs and decreasing institutional reliance on private philanthropy.

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Billy Anania

Billy Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.

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