As the next Texas legislative session draws closer, arts advocates are keeping a close watch on news from the state and federal levels about funding for arts organizations that have been devastated by the pandemic shutdowns.
But what many Texans may not realize is, time is almost running out for many artists and arts organizations.
Major programs like the expanded unemployment benefits relief package are expiring.
In May, the Democratic House of Representatives proposed $4 trillion dollars in relief aid through the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (the HEROES Act) as the next round of stimulus funding. But on Monday, the Senate GOP released the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act (the HEALS Act), which countered with a proposed $1 trillion instead. The two sides are now battling it out to reach a unified deal on how much money the next relief package will include.
This critical decision will be a life-or-death issue for many arts organizations and independently supported artists and other workers in the gig economy.
Arts advocacy groups urge Texans who love the performing arts, museums, or know an independent artist to write to U.S. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Houston) and Ted Cruz (R-Houston). The time is now to act to help save them. Don’t wait until the legislative session in January.
“The arts were the first thing to close down,” said Ann Graham, executive director for Texans for the Arts. “The cancellation of SXSW for the first time in its history was like the ‘canary in the coal mine.’ It told us, this is serious, and reopening and getting people back into the theater or performing arts performances is not going to be feasible. But just as arts are the first thing to close down, they are also the last thing to reopen. As we’ve seen with previous health crises. It could be as long as two years before arts organizations can fully operate because although it may be legal to reopen, the public perception is that sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a theater still just does not seem safe.”
Graham said that her organization, Texans for the Arts, is working tirelessly on advocacy initiatives as they wait for news from the state and federal levels about funding, so they can move forward with budget plans. Federal or state funding may be the only thing that can help these organizations stay afloat for longer, even though their art offerings bring in a huge portion of the state’s revenue.
Among the requests that Texans for the Arts and Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy group, will be making to state and federal leaders are extended economic relief packages, including the arts and culture sector in reopening plans, investing in post COVID-19 infrastructure, encouraging communities to support and engage in the arts, support for ongoing creative sector activity, and protection for artists and other workers who are self-sustaining in the gig economy.
The HEROES Act proposed by the House included several vital relief initiatives that would help the arts community. Texans For the Arts and Americans for the Arts are encouraging Texans to write to their legislators, urging them to lobby for these specifically. This includes $190 billion for paycheck protection program forgivable loans, an extension on the extra $600 a week for unemployment benefits through January instead of a reduction to $200 in September, a second round of stimulus checks with no caps or reductions, $875 billion for state and local governments to help recover from the pandemic, and $10 million for both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“All eyes are on Congress. We need them to come together to bring a bill that the president will sign,” Graham said. “That’s the first step, at the federal level. This will help artists across the nation. At the state level, cities and municipalities have also received large grants, and we want the arts and culture sector to be included and to continue to be included where it has been. We’re hoping as advocates to see some more of those dollars make it into the arts and culture sector at the state level.”
As they wait to see what Congress does on the next stimulus bill, arts organizations are also closely watching a proposed bipartisan Save Our Arts bill from Cornyn and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). The act would provide $10 billion in relief funds for small, independent performance venues through the Small Business Administration.
Americans for the Arts has generated a dashboard of self-reported data from across the country, surveying those who work in both the nonprofit sector and as individual artists, to measure the impact of the virus on this industry. When asked to look to the future, only 60 percent of participants were confident their organization would survive the pandemic at all, citing loss of philanthropic giving, limited savings, and canceled contracts as three of the top contributing factors.
Americans for the Arts estimates that the national impact to the arts from the pandemic is a deficit of more than $9 billion dollars.
Graham emphasized that the pandemic has brought into sharp focus for many Texans just how much the arts influence their everyday lives.
“We really want to get the public to think about why the arts are so important and not take them for granted,” Graham said. “We saw in the first days of quarantine, beautiful stories about Italians singing from their balconies. That’s not a performance so much as it is just an outpouring of heart and soul and a love of arts. The American version of that was porch concerts and livestream performances. On your own, what did you do in quarantine? You read books, watched movies, took art classes. There was a huge uptick in the popularity of cooking. Almost everyone is engaging in the arts without thinking about it. What would you be doing if you didn’t have access to these arts?”
Also of note is the role the arts play in healing a country going through many things at once this year: not just a pandemic, but also a transformation in awareness and action in racial inequality, healing from the fear and anxiety of an economic crisis, and more movement in reforming the justice system.
And once you realize this impact and value, Graham said, you want to take action to make sure they’re around for the long term.
“The arts play such an important role in healing. It is a way of bridging the gap: through language, activism, murals, so much more,” Graham said. “There’s been an outpouring of the work of expression in 2020. We often say in the arts advocacy world that first responders are in the medical field, and second responders are the arts. This is what helps heal a community.”