The United States has been for much of its history a remarkably artistic nation. The American arts of the 20th century in particular have been the driver of the country’s immense global cultural influence, a kind of soft power that often muffles other native arts but at the same time seeds fresh creation, from rock to Bollywood, Swedish TV noir to Arabic hip-hop.
But there has been nothing like the calamity this country, and the South Florida arts community, have endured under the COVID-19 pandemic. It has robbed performers and presenting organizations of their livelihoods, and kept audiences at bay who otherwise desperately wish to take in a live show.
A look at some fresh national numbers spells out the problem:
Arts organizations nationwide have lost $14 billion in the pandemic, with 96 percent of organizations canceling events, according to an Oct. 20 survey from Americans for the Arts, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group. That has meant 478 million tickets unsold and a loss of $15.1 billion in arts-related spending at ancillary businesses such as restaurants and hotels.
Some 63 percent of artists nationally have become fully unemployed, the survey showed, with 95 percent reporting some loss of income, and 78 percent with no post-pandemic recovery plan. Government revenue has taken a $4.9 billion hit, and some 845,000 jobs in the arts are no longer being supported.
In total, the 26,200 artists responding to the survey have lost an average of $22,000 annually; the national figure for loss of arts income is $50.6 billion, Americans for the Arts said.
That is a staggering amount of money, even in a country with trillion-dollar deficits.
And the picture in Palm Beach County is just as dire. According to a preliminary survey (released Oct. 8) by the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County, the arts sector here, which has an annual economic impact of $633 million, has suffered a $48.3 million loss as 1,641 events have been canceled and nearly 600 full-time and part-time jobs have been subject to furloughs (underlining the immense importance of the freelance labor that staffs the majority of local arts performances in the county).
Annual attendance of arts events in Palm Beach County is about 3.9 million people, the council says. In the pandemic, nearly a fourth —some 888,277 people — of that attendance has disappeared.
Our country’s long history of anti-intellectualism and disdain of the arts professions as somehow not being real jobs is familiar to all of us who work in or around the creative professions. And yet the arts have been a vital lifeline in this, our time of misery.
For an immediate example we need only look to television: When people talk about bingeing on Netflix, they’re bingeing on the arts. When they fall into a YouTube wormhole and call up favorite performers from the past or find exciting new ones, they are bingeing on the arts. And every broadcast news program, to say nothing of government-presented events, is filtered through the theater arts.
It is because of this that if a vaccine for the virus were to be discovered and distributed next week, much of the arts activity that is on hiatus here would spring back quickly — if there is enough money to go around and there are enough people still able to return to the field of artistic endeavor.
The Cultural Council last month launched its Restart with the Arts fundraising campaign, in which donors can give to the council’s fund by visiting palmbeachculture.com/restart. It’s something the state government should be doing, too, but Florida will need a substantial political realignment for that to happen. In the meantime, if we can, it’s a good idea to give to our favorite arts organizations or to the council’s fund. After all, we want our artists to be there when the all-clear is sounded and we can return to our pre-virus lives, changed though they may be.
Americans love the arts, and artists, much more than they know. The arts are basic to humanity, something we’ve been wired with for millennia. I have no doubt that the county’s art scene will come roaring back when it’s safe to do so. The question will be: How many of the pre-virus members of the arts sector will still be there?
Here’s hoping they all are, bringing their gifts back to us and reminding us why this part of the country is such an exciting, joyful place to live. At the very least, we should try to help them. It will only be when the arts come back in full flower that we will be able to say: Yes, we have recovered.
— Greg Stepanich, editor