Dancing on the edge of collapse: the many reasons to support the arts sector

Dancers in low lighting, wearing black unitards, reach in different directions and intertwine their bodies.

“People are homeless and hungry, and local governments are broke — why should we pay for you to write slam poetry and make weird performance art?” — if you’re in the arts sector, you’ve not only heard something like that, it’s how it most often feels like the world sees you. What many Americans don’t fully understand is the quantifiable and unquantifiable gifts that this sector offers all of us. Because of the economic crisis resulting from COVID-19, it is not an exaggeration to say that we might lose those gifts — essential social nourishment, rather.

For the vibrancy of our lives and our communities

The arts add color and texture to our lives. They beautify our parks and buildings. They fill subway stations with music that makes us smile and dance a little when we might have otherwise just been stressed about running late. They put up a mirror that makes us see who we really are and what we really believe (there’s a reason that the first people despotic regimes imprison are intellectuals and artists). They light us up. They connect us.

In New York City, the arts are Broadway, concerts at Madison Square Garden, visual art exhibits, and New York Fashion Week. They’re people enjoying an acoustic guitarist in a cafe. They’re vibrant street art. They’re a teen in a rough neighborhood going to dance classes at a community center rather than joining a gang. They’re the heartbeat of the city.

A violinist plays outdoors in a park.
A violinist plays outdoors in a park.

To draw out that image of a youth going to dance classes rather than joining a gang, arts organizations touch communities far beyond their four walls; most, if not all, have some sort of social outreach program or set of initiatives. These programs and initiatives raise funds and awareness for important causes, expose people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the myriad whole-person benefits of artistic pursuits, and bring healing catharsis to communities who need it. Alma NYC (@_almanyc) and Fortitude Dance Productions (@fortitudedanceprouctions) are great examples of arts organizations doing amazing work in this area. Some arts organizations are even especially geared towards this work out in communities, in and out of NYC — check out Darkness Rising (@darknessrisingproject), Groove With Me (@groovewithme), Kaiser’s Room (@kaisersroom), and Shining Light (@shining_light).

Nurturing the arts ecosystem

Admittedly, however, many people’s direct exposure to and source of art is “pop culture” — popular films, music, books, and dances. Yet without nurturing the entire arts ecosystem we will not experience art that has the quality to reach mass appeal. A meme that was circulating on Facebook towards the beginning of COVID lockdown felt truly resonant — “Try spending months without books, iTunes, Spotify, Netflix, or Hulu and then tell us that the arts don’t matter.”

Every artist who’s become a family name has heard “no” countless times and still kept going. They kept learning through trial-and-error and honing their craft. If we want to enjoy the work of the Spielbergs, Beyonces, and Misty Copelands of the world, we need to support artists at every stage of their creative path.

A film crew films a woman crouched over the ground in a grey atmosphere.
A film crew films a woman crouched over the ground in a grey atmosphere.

It’s the economy, too, stupid…

The hard fact is that right now, many arts workers are currently in a position where they very well might not be able to keep going. They might have to somehow shift paths to another source of income, if that’s even possible (all too often it’s not, even in the best of economies). 94% percent of arts workers lost income due to COVID. 62% of them have become fully unemployed. 79% of them experienced a “drastic loss of income” in recent months. 66% of them are currently unable to access resources necessary to generate their creative work (space, supplies, et cetera). Artists are incredibly resourceful and resilient, but at a certain point making it all work becomes simply unsustainable.

51% of arts organizations have cancelled events due to the pandemic, and leaders at 10% of them are “not confident” that their organizations will survive past it (beanartshero.com). We can’t know that amongst that 10% wouldn’t have been the next Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Second Story Theater, or Pixar. We can’t know what will have been lost.

And with those losses, our larger economy will face tremendous losses as well. Many jobs and tourism dollars come to localities through arts institutions. And these institutions know how to be fiscally efficient and effective; every one dollar put into arts institutions results in nine dollars put back into surrounding communities (through jobs, money spent at local businesses on outings to shows and exhibits, and the like). Addressing the US Senate, Arts advocate Michael-Lee Erlbech puts these numbers, and the stakes at hand, into a potent frame:

In New York State, the arts sector adds an average of 483,424 jobs and $119, 971,904,300 to the economy annually. That amount stands at 7.5% GSP (Gross State Product), approaching double the national average — which, on a side note and to put into context, is more than Agriculture, Tourism, and Construction individually.

…and the right thing to do.

Apart from the described social nurturance that the arts offer us, this is a social justice issue. For one, the arts can increase civic engagement and educate audiences about the experiences of historically marginalized groups. For two, arts workers are our sons, daughters, parents, cousins, friends, lovers, and co-workers. They offer our society far more than we’ve given them credit for, and now’s a time when we can stand up for them.

A painter, focused, works away over a tall table.
A painter, focused, works away over a tall table.

We can stand up for something that our society needs to be the best it can be. If you’re ready to do that, call your Senators and urge them to pass legislation supporting measures such as appropriations to state arts organizations for grants to individuals and organizations, increased appropriations for the NEA, and COBRA healthcare benefits for arts workers. Urge them to pass the HEROES Act, which will help artists and many other individuals, families, and communities in this challenging time — as well as the Save Our Stages Act, which will appropriate emergency funding to help arts venues stay in business through the pandemic.

Support arts organizations by attending a virtual dance class, screening, reading, or showing — and donate what you can. If you have arts worker friends, check in with them — what do they need right now? Be vocal about the issue with your social media platform and with people in your life. We can all do our part to keep a vibrant arts ecosystem part of the fabric of our local communities and larger nation. We all benefit, so we can all be part of making a difference.

Kathryn Boland, Founding Member of ITF, is a dance writer, dancer, and overall arts enthusiast. She began dancing at age thirteen, while also heavily involved in theater, and soon became enamored with all things artistic. She studied Dance, Theater, English, and Art History at The George Washington University and graduated with a BA in Dance. Her path then led her to yoga and Dance/Movement Therapy, attuning her to matters of trauma, power, privilege, oppression, and how those things intersect with our bodies and how they move. That rising awareness led her to political organizing and policy advocacy. You can find her writing in Dance Informa (danceinforma.com) and Yoga U Online (yogauonline.com). When not working or organizing, Kathryn enjoys nature, reading, comedy, music, and a cup of coffee with a good friend (socially distanced and masked these days, of course).

In The Fight is committed to the advancement of progressive politics that leads to structural change in our current social, political, and economic structures.