Our country celebrated Inauguration Day through an outpouring of arts, culture and creativity. That included expansive public art that illuminated the toll of COVID-19, a nationwide concert featuring gifted musicians, performers and other artists, and an awe-inspiring poem from youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman.
In the nearly four weeks since the inauguration, creative businesses would have generated over $67 billion for local economies — but they didn’t, because the creative sector continues to be almost entirely shut down. Instead, over that same period, two out of three creative workers, numbering in the millions, have sat unemployed, continuing a trend that started almost a year ago.
The Biden administration is now hard at work pursuing substantial relief and recovery legislation. This is where we learn how much, and in what ways, the new administration and Congress think about arts, culture and the creative economy. And this is the very moment when creative enterprise can shape our nation’s recovery, much as it drove the inauguration.
There can be no national recovery without our nation’s 5.1 million creative workers — and many of these independent and/or gig workers are in dire straits. Creative work drives our economies, and, as the overwhelming popularity of streaming music, television and film this past year shows, has been an essential comforting and coping mechanism for us all. Yet even as the arts are called to center stage in moments like the inauguration, these workers, these Americans, are in desperate need of support.
Right now, in the United States, 2.7 million creative workers are out of work. According to research from Americans for the Arts, during the pandemic, 1 in 3 creative workers have been threatened with eviction, 1 in 10 have experienced homelessness, and over half have experienced food insecurity. Perhaps most dire: Over a third of creative workers have had to decline needed medical help because of lack of insurance or inability to pay, and over half have no savings left to fall back on. Black, Indigenous and other artists of color have been laid off at higher rates than white artists and lost more of their 2020 income. Creative workers have fallen straight through the safety net.
Jump-starting the creative economy will get creative workers back to work while boosting our nation’s economy. With a growth rate nearly double the national average, the creative sector is a jobs multiplier that helps other sectors grow. When running at full strength, the creative sector generates $878 billion per year, or 4.5 percent of the GDP, with ripple effects that increase local revenues from tourism, restaurants, hotels and local shops. Beyond being a sound economic investment and jobs creator, the songs, murals, books, movies, plays, video games and craft that surround us and that have sustained us during the pandemic are key to our local and national identities. They also foster community, drive innovation, address health crises and can help heal the soul of America.
That is why 204 chambers of commerce in all 50 states have written to Congress supporting legislation that would fund the creative economy as part of recovery, and why mayors from 10 major cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix and Houston, have written a similar letter encouraging the employment of creative workers across federal programs.
It is also why, last fall, over 100 creative economy organizations co-developed “Put Creative Workers to Work,”a policy plan to integrate the creative economy as a cornerstone of the national recovery. This plan has been endorsed by 2,300 creative businesses and creative workers in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. If enacted, it would create or save over 325,000 jobs, generate tens of billions of dollars of economic ripple effects throughout American communities and create hundreds of thousands of revenue-generating and soul-healing festivals, artworks and community events.
We can restart the American economic engine by investing in the creative economy. Almost a year into the pandemic, creative workers continue to hurt, creative businesses stay closed and communities continue to suffer. It doesn’t have to be that way.
“We will not march back to what was / but move to what shall be,” said Amanda Gorman on that crisp, clear Inauguration Day. “A country that is bruised but whole, / benevolent but bold, / fierce and free.”
Put creative workers to work. Let us lead that march. Invest in us. It is good for the economy, good for our communities and good for the soul.
Brian Stokes Mitchell is a Tony Award-winning actor, singer, and music producer, as well as board chair of The Actors Fund, co-founder of Black Theatre United, and a member of both the board of directors and the Artists Committee of Americans for the Arts.