Rebuilding the arts sector without a vow of poverty

COVID-19 provides opportunity to rethink the way arts are funded

LIKE MANY CREATIVES, Vanessa Calixto works in the arts to fill her heart and in another field to fill her bank account. It’s a tradeoff she accepts to do the work she loves, directing the Worcester-based creative group El Salón.

El Salón is a group of organizers and creatives that creates spaces for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists to come together and showcase their work. Calixto says this population has been somewhat excluded from what she describes as the “Worcester Renaissance” that has transformed the city into an arts and culture hub in recent years. Her group seeks to bring marginalized communities back into the city’s creative spaces.

Since the beginning, she has volunteered her time leading the group and the artists have made do on what she calls a budget of “blood, sweat and tears, and free time.” Working with little more than passion and pocket change, El Salón has put on many successful shows and exhibits, sometimes drawing audiences of at least 100.

This spring, however, the organization had a taste of what it would be like to work with a bit more money than it is used to. With the pandemic’s grip beginning to ease, El Salón was awarded an artists’ residency at the Jean McDonough Arts Center. The pilot program, launched by the Worcester Cultural Coalition, gave the group free range of the center for two months, $15,000 in discretionary funds, and technical support valued at $10,000.

A model displays a piece of wearable art at El Salón’s Take Space Gallery. (Photo courtesy of George Annan)

For the first time, Calixto was able to pay herself and three other BIPOC women leading El Salón small stipends for their work. Every artist and vendor that participated in an event hosted during the residency was paid, something that was central to the group’s mission to uplift marginalized artists.

The pilot program may have important implications for the wider arts community in Massachusetts. COVID-19 pillaged the arts economy in Massachusetts and arts leaders are looking at ways to rebuild. Many ideas are on the table, but there is also growing consensus that the sector can’t rebuild the way it was prior to the pandemic, with artists unable to make ends meet without working second jobs.

At a recent meeting of the COVID-19 Cultural Impact Commission, Dan Yaeger, a member of the Commonwealth Association of Museums, asked his colleagues why they would restore a system that asked cultural workers to take a vow of poverty.

“This is our moment to make some big changes, because change has been forced on us,” he said. “We have an obligation right now to put [forward] some resources … to continue what we are talking about here and help provide a roadmap for our cultural facilities and decision makers and civic leaders to coalesce around the value of arts so that … [artists] are not always wondering where that next dollar is going to come from.”

The arts and culture sector has long been a giving tree: stimulating a vibrant economy, but never quite seeing the returns among its own workers. Most creatives cobble together dozens of gigs a year, juggling five or six at a time to make ends meet. It’s a system that Emily Ruddock, executive director of MassCreative, described as a three-legged stool. Without live audiences for months on end, that stool went toppling over.

The Mass Cultural Council, an organization that elevates arts and culture in Massachusetts, found that between March and February of 2020, the average artist lost $10,303. The number reflects a loss of about 23 gigs per artist.

Dawn Simmons, director of StageSource, a theater arts organization, said a survey of the group’s membership in March of 2020 showed that nearly a quarter of members lost between 20 percent and 50 percent of their income in just the first three weeks of the state lockdown. Another 10 percent lost over half.

Artists are giving up on the industry altogether and some may be leaving the state in search of greener pastures. Michael Bobbitt, executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, said he knew six theater workers who moved out of state as a result of the pandemic. Some had to move back in with their parents.

Michael Bobbitt, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. (Photo courtesy of Craig Bailey/Perspective)

The benefits of realizing a better framework for arts and culture would reverberate beyond the arts community. Bobbitt said the sector is key to a robust economic recovery. He pointed to secondary spending related to arts consumption that ranges from eating out and paying for lodging to buying new clothes or going to a salon before an event. “Any community that really is investing in the arts and making the arts a priority for their community will see that investment come back to them in so many ways,” he said.

As a result, he said, communities with strong cultural infrastructure may rebound faster from the pandemic. He highlighted Louisiana and New York, each of which leaned on arts and culture after economic disasters. The year after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival attracted 350,000 attendees, brought in $23.5 million in gross revenue, and uplifted local artists and other vendors. New York came within an inch of bankruptcy in the 1970s, but with the help of Broadway it swept up its appearance. The New York metro area is now one of the wealthiest in the country.

“There’s nothing like food and art [to] bring people together,” explained Bobbitt.

So how does Massachusetts channel the lessons of Broadway and southern Jazz? The commission is calling for allocating $575 million in federal stimulus funds to help cultural institutions navigate reopening and recovery, launch marketing campaigns, and improve facilities.

Panel members are still exploring other ideas. Bobbitt, for example, wants to think about innovative infrastructure such as affordable housing for artists and better access to health insurance, something many gig workers lack. He also sees an opportunity to leverage the virtual models artists were forced to turn to during the pandemic. While most organizations don’t quite have a polished hybrid system to offer live and digital programs, he is hopeful that developing them could increase interest in the arts. “It worked for the sporting industry,” he pointed out. “In fact, the digital world in sports became the thing to do.”

Most of his ideas are still abstract, though, and he recognizes that. Massachusetts hasn’t plugged in its Broadway lights yet, it’s just looking out at a 1970s 42nd Street and seeing potential.

The answer may not be an overnight job, either. It certainly wasn’t for Worcester. The city has been scaffolding a more equitable and sustainable arts sector for over 20 years and has only just begun to scratch the surface of its goals.

Its own transformation took root in 1999 with the foundation of the Worcester Cultural Coalition. A group of cultural organizations partnered with the city to form the coalition and created a cultural action agenda to guide its work. It would be another two decades before the council would publish “Becoming Worcester: The Evolution of a Creative City,” a cultural plan that proposed allocating city funds to an artist in residency program like the one launched this spring. The plan grew from the signing of a “cultural compact” in June of 2018 that would hold the Mass Cultural Council, the Worcester Cultural Coalition, and the city to a commitment to the arts. Worcester was one of six Massachusetts communities to sign such an agreement.

A mural on the wall of C.C. Lowell Art Supply Co. in Worcester. (Photo courtesy of Nikki Erskine)

While it is still working on infrastructure such as artist villages that would provide affordable live-work spaces and continued residencies to support creative workers, it has seen significant economic and cultural growth along the way.

In 2006 cultural events attracted 1.5 million visitors to Worcester, a number that ballooned to 2.7 million in 2018. Over the past six years, 160 murals have been installed across the city. And when the pandemic swung a wrecking ball through the cultural community, Worcester was prepared to extend a hand.

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After schools and businesses shut down, $200,000 was allocated to 10 cultural organizations to fund virtual arts programs for Worcester youth. The Worcester Creative Relief Fund was established to provide 70 artists with one-time grants of $500 to use as needed. A project called Give Me a Sign paid artists to create signs with uplifting messages to be placed around the city, simultaneously supporting artists and acknowledging mental health impacts felt across the community.

El Salón’s residency at the JMAC ended last week and Calixto hasn’t quit her nine-to-five just yet, but, if opportunities like that one become more readily available, the possibility of supporting herself in the job she loves may creep into reach. “I wish this was my career,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like work and that’s when you know that you’re doing the right job or the career that’s for you: when it doesn’t feel like work.”