Bravo to Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin for urging the Biden administration to create a cabinet-level arts and culture post. In an open letter last week, Nézet-Séguin — who is also music director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera — said the pandemic’s crippling impact on the creative economy makes “a voice at the table” in Washington, D.C., even more critical.
The fact is, the pandemic has only served as the latest threat to arts and culture. Government support for the arts has never been robust, but it has grown anemic in recent times. For example, the $162 million budget for the National Endowment for the Arts remains at the same level it was in 1984. And every year of his administration, President Donald Trump proposed eliminating it altogether, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The maestro’s call is perfectly timed. The role that the arts can play in helping the country heal and overcome the massive challenges it has grappled with in the past year needs no more evidence than the rhapsodic reception to former Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s performance at the inauguration.
Arts and culture’s importance to the health of the economy is also critical. A survey conducted last fall by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance found that 266 local arts organizations large and small expect to lose a combined $214.4 million in the 12 months that will end this March. Philly’s creative economy lost 1,277 jobs as of October.
The Philly region’s arts and culture economy helps propel the tourism and hospitality industries and adds vitality not only to Center City but throughout the region. Venues of all sizes have been shuttered for months, and some, like South Philly’s beloved Boot & Saddle, have closed for good.
While $15 billion in “Save Our Stages” funding was approved as part of the December stimulus package, the Small Business Administration has yet to begin the application process and no date for doing so has been announced. President Joe Biden should see to it that this money is put to work soon.
Other help has come in payroll protection funds through the first stimulus last year, which some museums, performance venues, and other arts organizations received. Pennsylvania provided $20 million in COVID-19 relief assistance to museums and cultural organizations across the state. The William Penn and Mellon Foundations have provided $8 million, and Philly’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy worked with the alliance and others to set up the $4 million COVID-19 Arts Aid PHL Fund. But all this is not enough.
Given that a Brookings study found the creative economy lost 2.7 million jobs and more than $150 billion in revenue between April and July of 2020 alone, a cabinet position or “arts czar” would have a substantial portfolio. New York Times arts critic Jason Farago recently suggested that Biden establish a national program to put arts and culture professionals to work, a la Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
That approach is worth supporting.
President Biden can take a step in the right direction by taking the advice of maestro Nézet-Séguin — and enabling the arts to play a larger role in America’s recovery from the pandemic.