We can’t afford to take arts sector for granted

Cultural activities deserve their share of federal ARPA funding

JOCKEYING FOR HOW to disburse the more than $5 billion in federal funds coming to Massachusetts via the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has been underway for months. From health care to climate change mitigation to housing, Massachusetts lawmakers could likely find worthy ways to spend the money five times over.

Reflecting this reality, debate over how to allocate the pandemic recovery funds has been cast in lofty rhetoric. Gov. Charlie Baker describes it as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” and Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides says it’s “game changing.”

In this public discussion, arguments for pandemic-related relief for artists, cultural workers, and arts organizations can be easily dismissed as lower priority, or simply folded into broader economic arguments to support the state’s tourism industry.

This would be a horrible mistake.

Art and culture are a public good deserving of public investment for pandemic recovery. But it’s not recognized as such. That’s why we have been told throughout the pandemic that it is our civic duty to order takeout from restaurants rather than sending money to any one of the hundreds of arts organizations that have been mitigating the trauma of front-line health care workers and easing our isolation.

It can be challenging to advocate on behalf of art, culture, and creativity because artists, their creations, and the nearly infinite ways in which they make life worth living are so woven into the tapestry of our lives that we barely notice them.

But here is what we should be taking note of. Before the pandemic, 75 percent of Greater Boston residents attended a musical performance, arts exhibit, cultural festival, or some other cultural event each month. In 2019, 21 million people in Massachusetts attended cultural events in Boston, which is more than four times as many people who attended professional sports games that year. Also in 2019, arts and cultural nonprofits contributed $2.3 billion to the state’s economy and $100 million in state tax revenue.

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, this industry is on the brink of collapse, with BIPOC-led organizations bearing the brunt of destruction. Since March 2020 and the pandemic-related closure of museums and stages and the cancellation of musical performances, plays, and other live performances, 981 arts and cultural nonprofit organizations—which represent a sliver of the state’s creative economy—have reported $588.3 million in pandemic-related losses. Nearly 3,000 creative workers in Massachusetts (again, a sliver of the full workforce) lost over $30 million during that same time. Last month, New Repertory Theatre announced that it was suspending operations indefinitely. Numerous organizations ranging from Cambodian Performing Arts to the Celebrity Series of Boston have foregone 18 months of in-person programming and the revenue that comes with it.

In June, the special Legislative COVID-19 Cultural Impact Commission, on which I served, submitted a report to the Legislature with urgent recommendations to support the arts and cultural sector in the following ways:

  • Recovery and reopening grants totaling $373 million for independent, non- and for-profit arts organizations, museums, visuals arts, cultural heritage, and performing arts venues to prevent closures as well as grants for artists to support their career recoveries.
  • Investments of $60 million in infrastructure and equipment upgrades to support safe reopenings and sustain virtual programming.
  • Supporting arts and culture workforce development, arts education, and community development with $100 million for grants for creative placemaking initiatives, development incentives to create live/work spaces, and capacity building grants.
  • A statewide marketing campaign of $40 million to promote lesser-known cultural community organizations and events that are racially, linguistically, and culturally diverse.

There’s a lot that we still don’t know about the coronavirus. But here’s what we do know. We are facing a widescale mental health crisis related to the debilitating effects of isolation so many of us have experienced over the past two years. Art heals. And we are at a crossroads. Are we going to do things the way we always have? Or are we really going to build back better? If we are truly committed to the latter, then our funding decisions for ARPA should be “based on scientific evidence of benefits and drawbacks to our well-being, not solely on economic costs and convenience.”

Meet the Author

Emily Ruddock

Executive director, MASSCreative
This really is a game changing, once in a generation opportunity. Let’s not squander it.

Emily Ruddock is the executive director of MASSCreative, a statewide arts advocacy organization. She served on the recent special legislative COVID-19 Cultural Impact Commission.