Ky. Arts Workers See Hope For Struggling Industry In Biden-Harris White House
Soon after it was projected that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would become president and vice president, their campaign released a video montage of Americans: playing on a playground, working in a field of crops, and walking past a well-known Louisville mural. And in each scene, someone carries or holds up a picture frame as Ray Charles’ rendition of “America the Beautiful” plays.
It’s a reference to a famous performance art piece by Lorraine O’Grady called “Art is…”, first performed at the African American Day Parade in Harlem in 1986.
For Louisville poet and activist Hannah Drake, it’s a sign that Biden and Harris will be good for the arts and culture sector.
“I'm very optimistic because I believe Biden and Kamala get it,” she said. “We've seen their videos, we've seen them dancing to music, we've seen the marching band. They get art.”
What they get, she believes, is that the arts aren’t just extra; that the arts are integral to a society and are, in fact, key economic players in the United States.
“A lot of times people think of artists as like, ‘Oh, they paint a pretty picture,’ but artists are truly impacting their economy,” she said. “It’s billions of dollars.”
Pre-pandemic, the arts and culture sector was a more than $877 billion industry providing more than 5 million jobs across the country, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
And as arts and culture workers continue to face uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic upending their industry, some, including Drake, are pinning their hopes on the new White House administration to help turn things around.
Should U.S. Have An Arts And Culture Cabinet?
Ten thousand-plus arts workers, including more than a dozen from Louisville, signed a letter to Biden and Harris asking them to “start your new administration with a Secretary of Arts and Culture at your table.” Many arts workers had held the same hope under the Obama administration, and though President Obama seemed to have a love for the arts, the cabinet-level role never came to fruition.
Drake said it’s a good idea to create such a position because “artists think differently” and highlight important issues through their words, paintings, song and dance.
“Oftentimes artists are attempting to tell this nation and the world about itself. Artists are always at the forefront of a movement, always,” she said.
However, if there is an Arts and Culture Cabinet, Drakes hopes that whomever would lead it would prop up individual artists just as much as institutions and find a way to make funding opportunities more abundant, more equitable and more accessible for independent artists.
Kentuckians for the Arts chair Lori Meadows said there is a sense of relief with a new administration coming in after four years of constant threats to gut cultural agencies, such as the National Endowments for the arts and humanities.
“With the new administration, my thought is that will not be an issue,” she said. “And of course, the real hope is that the agencies will receive an increase in funding, a very needed increase.”
Government funding for the arts, at all levels, is critical, she added.
“It shows that the arts are important,” Meadows said.
Plus, she said, it’s a good investment because other industries, like hospitality, benefit from a thriving art scene.
Meadow would like to see an arts cabinet established, but, at the very least, she hopes Biden will reinstate the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. The committee members have expertise in the field and act as advisors to the president, and “everybody needs advisors,” Meadows said.
Thecommittee disbanded under President Trump’s administration in 2017 when all of the members resigned because of Trump’s response to Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va. during which a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi killed a protester.
The Biden-Harris transition team didn’t respond to a question about the likelihood of a new Arts & Culture Cabinet, or if they’re considering naming a “culture czar” in lieu of a Cabinet.
Louisville recording artist, educator and Metro Council member Jecorey Arthur thinks a cabinet position would likely lack substance anyway.
“And if it's any reflection of arts and culture as it exists today, in the United States of America, then it's definitely going to be dominated by white people. It's going to be discriminatory towards Black people,” Arthur said.
Arthur thinks White House arts initiatives should focus on fixing racial and economic disparities, and not funding one kind of art over another.
“The music that I make, and the musicians and the artists I work with... instead of creating something to pull you away from that reality, we're trying to create something to make you face that reality,” he said.
“That also raises the question: Will government embrace that type of art?”
The New York Times’s critic-at-large, Jason Farago, argued in a story published mid-January that there’s simply not enough federal support for the arts to warrant a Cabinet, worrying it might end up “being more bureaucratic than beneficial.”
U.S. Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat who has supported arts-targeted aid such as the “Save Our Stages” provision, told WFPL he’d consider an Arts & Culture Cabinet, but it would be critical to not “bureaucratize it.”
“That's always the risk when you create a large agency,” he said, adding that he is in favor of more pandemic-specific aid to the arts.
There’s also the concern that a future White House administration might use the position to censor art or to be discriminatory.
“I certainly think that when you look at the four years that we have just gone through and the record of the Trump administration, in supporting things like that, I think that's a very serious risk,” Yarmuth said. “We've been fighting efforts to cut off funding for those [cultural] agencies about every year. We've been able to prevail largely because enough members of Congress realize how critical the arts are to the economies of their district, and how many people are employed in those activities.”
Putting Artists To Work Rebuilding
Louisville Orchestra music director Teddy Abrams would like to see the new administration create an arts work program, akin to the Works Progress Administration under FDR’s New Deal. As arts workers face staggering unemployment, it would pay artists to help the country rebuild.
“My theory is that you should embed artists into every step of the decision making process, you're going to build a bridge… or construct a new school or perhaps it's a social project, a reduction in homelessness, artists should be helping that,” Abrams said.
He thinks, putting artists in these roles as “public servants” will not only employ out-of-work people, but it will also improve communities and “change the perception of artists.”
“So many people still love to bash them and, especially the government level saying we should get rid of the [National Endowment for the Arts] every year because they're useless or art isn't important or helpful,” he said. “When you show It's helpful, people won't say that anymore.”
Some feel optimistic after Congress passed a new COVID stimulus package with $15 billion in grants set aside for independent venues. And under a Biden administration, the industry is hoping for more arts-targeted relief. The pandemic shutdowns have already given rise to massive lobbying efforts from the arts industry, such as the national group Be an Arts Hero, formed by performers and artists who found themselves without work and with few resources during the pandemic.
Co-founder Brooke Ishibashi said it’s a labor movement rising up from within the sector, and it’s not just the people you see on stage or whose works are hanging in galleries.
“We're talking about ushers, we're talking about the valet service, we're talking about people who are workers, laborers,” she said. “So we use the term art workers exclusively because of that and we're here to change the conversation so that our workers can define their value on economic terms, because we have economic worth.”
Be an Arts Hero is working on new legislation called the DAWN Act: Defend Arts Workers Now, proposing more than $43 billion dollars in grants to help arts workers of all stripes get through this pandemic.
Ishibashi said this relief is essential for all 5.1 million some workers in the industry to make it through the pandemic, and the impact of the mounting economic loss is taking its toll.
“Beyond the physical infrastructure of that loss, we're seeing human loss in epic proportions,” she said. “We're seeing mass evictions, we're seeing folks who are about to lose their health insurance during a deadly pandemic. Obviously, people who are getting sick, who are dying, we have friends and colleagues who are killing themselves [because of this loss].”
And so it’s not just arts-focused policy that arts workers will be keeping an eye as the new administration gets to work. They’ll be watching what comes of Biden’s healthcare plan, if he can succeed on his campaign promise to reclassify gig workers as employees and ultimately if he’ll be able to follow through on his ambitious vaccination rollout because the arts industry will continue to hobble along until mass gatherings are safe again.
Louisville costume designer Alexandra Ludwig has been meeting with Kentucky lawmakers, lobbying on behalf of Be an Arts Hero. She’s optimistic about the Biden-Harris administration. but is worried they’re already losing an entire generation of artists.
“There's a mass exodus in the industry, which is also really disheartening because we're losing so much in terms of knowledge and skills and ideas from people that have just felt completely neglected the past year, and rightfully so,” Ludwig said.