A masked visitor next to a Richard Serra installation at DIA Beacon (photo by Amin Hasani; via Unsplash)

For nearly a year after the initial March 2020 lockdowns across the United States, economic productivity throughout the arts sector came to a standstill, as closures affected employment and revenue for museums, theaters, and art spaces nationwide. COVID-19’s impact on the arts has been undeniable, but new data released last week by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) quantifies the extent of the damage: Between 2019 and 2020, the arts economy shrank at nearly twice the rate of the US economy as a whole. 

The arts represent a broad and varied sector of local, institutional, and national organizations, and the majority of artists working in the US are either self-employed or independently contracted. The NEA says that arts and cultural production fell by 6.4% when adjusted for inflation, compared to a 3.4% decline in the economy overall. The value added by self-employed artists, writers, and performers fell by 20.6%, and, according to the NEA’s analysis, the unemployment rate across arts and culture industries shot up from 3.7% in 2019 to 10.3% in 2020.

The NEA reports that while arts and cultural industries regained some ground during 2021, they have not yet returned to 2019 income and activity levels. Several independently owned arts and cultural spaces that initially closed in 2020 never reopened their doors after suffering irremediable economic losses, and others held on by a thread of support from government subsidies and community aid.

With theaters and live performance spaces shuttered for nearly a year, the film and performing arts industries were predictably among the hardest hit. The film industry lost approximately 136,000 workers when COVID-19 halted all production, and while many studios have since resumed in-person work, many safety protocols have persisted. 

Government arts and cultural contributions remained steady during the pandemic. Despite reduced production, arts and culture managed to add $876.7 billion to the national GDP in 2020, down from $919.7 billion in 2019. The findings also highlight that third quarter performing arts revenue doubled from $834 million in 2020 to $1.7 billion in 2021, yet that amount lags behind the $12.7 billion earned in 2019.

“While arts and cultural industries and workers nationwide have sustained heavy losses, the sector continues to play an outsized role in the U.S. economy — as the new data demonstrate,” NEA Chair Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson said in a statement. 

Jackson points to an interesting trend within the sector: That summer of self-isolation and the onset of remote work catalyzed a mass transition to digital arts programming. Gallery openings and live performances, which were once strictly in-person affairs, could be accessed from the comfort of one’s home, and this proliferation of digital media engagement increased economic value by 14.3% between 2019 and 2020, employing 12,000 salaried workers.

The Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account (ACPSA) compiled data fact sheets illustrating the value that the arts and culture sector added to local economies across the 50 states in 2020. In New York alone, the arts contributed $126.7 billion, which amounts to 7.3% of the state’s overall economic value, and independent artists supplied approximately $5 million overall. While COVID-19’s toll on the creative economy has been significant, for the NEA, sustained value added is a clear indicator of progress and a reason to advocate for greater support of the creative sector. 

“The NEA is committed to participating as a key partner in the recovery of this sector, recognizing not only its economic value, but also the arts’ capacity to transform the lives of individuals and communities in other ways, contributing to health and well-being, and overall resilience,” Jackson added.

Sarah Derris is a writer, filmmaker, and visual artist based in New York. Her films have screened in Los Angeles, Kunshan, China, and Durham, NC, and she is primarily interested in examining the potentiality...