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COVID-19 and the Arts Sector

During this time of crisis that is causing severe challenges for non-profit arts organizations, arts and culture organizations are particularly vulnerable. The arts are often one of the first categories to be cut in times of economic crisis when limited funding is prioritized for immediate needs such as food, housing and healthcare.

People are often unaware that the arts sector plays a vital role in the local and national economies. In 2016, the National Endowment for the Arts calculated that the arts contribute $800 billion annually to the GDP and is the third largest employment sector after healthcare and retail. In Illinois, the arts generate $25.9 billion[1] annually. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics, COVID is estimated to be affecting one fourth of all workers in Illinois which includes approximately 100,000 people in the arts sector who have lost or are at risk of losing their jobs.[2] The arts sector in Illinois is also still recovering from the 793-day budget impasse crisis in 2015-2017 and the recession of 2008 when unemployment in the arts sector across the country was disproportionately affected.

In Illinois, through a public/private partnership between the City of Chicago, the Office of the Governor and multiple Illinois private philanthropic entities – the Arts Illinois Relief Fund was quickly created to respond to the crisis with emergency funds for arts organizations and individual artists throughout the State. As a reviewer for this Fund, I have learned a lot about how the arts sector is being hit. Many performing arts organizations have incurred unrecoverable losses due to spring performances and/or large fundraisers that were scheduled and subsequently cancelled. The projected losses for these performances in ticket sales alone is devastating. The same impact can be felt by musicians who have lost gigs and visual artists who have had to cancel gallery events. Many arts organizations’ incomes are dependent on memberships and season passes. These organizations are mostly refunding pre-paid tickets or passes due to cancelled events compounding the unrecoverable pre-paid losses, staff time to plan for these events and committed salaries for contracted artists.

Arts education organizations are also losing income from cancelled classes. While classes can often be converted to on-line models, there are many complications and challenges. It can be very difficult to translate some art forms into a virtual model for classes. There are arts education organizations whose missions are to serve low-income or other marginalized communities who may have poor or no internet access and limited technology options. Challenges with internet access and a lack of private funding can be especially painful to counties outside of Cook County whose entire incomes are based on classes and performances.

Moreover, this crisis is not likely going to end any time soon. It will probably be a long time, possibly more than a year, before people are going to be able to gather in large groups to watch performances or concerts or visit museums, festivals, or other cultural events. While arts groups are finding innovative ways to convert shows into virtual performances, these on-line events are unlike the experience of actually being present in-person. The Arts Illinois Relief Fund has provided a temporary lifeline to arts organizations across the state, but these funds could not reach all organizations in need, nor could they offer sustainable relief for those that benefited. Arts organizations of all sizes are going to struggle and we will sadly lose some altogether. In this crisis particularly, where everyone’s mental health is at risk due to fear and uncertainty and numerous other stressors, the arts play an integral role in alleviating some of that stress. Whether through music, movies, books, on-line courses, or virtual museum tours – I would argue that most people would believe that being stuck at home for many months on end would be unbearable without the arts as a form of relief.




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