We must prevent a great cultural depression

President's report

Volume 120, No. 10November, 2020

Adam Krauthamer


“We must prevent a great cultural depression”

By Adam Krauthamer

This piece was first published in the New York Daily News here on Oct 25, 2020

The pandemic has created new challenges in all of our lives, including the lives of performing artists. But unlike other workers — many of whom are slowly and methodically returning to their jobs — musicians and fellow arts workers in New York City are still locked out of the economy. These are the performers, artists and craftspeople who work on Broadway, at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theatre, Dizzy’s, Radio City and in your favorite clubs. They are being left behind in our national response to COVID, and we can’t afford to ignore them any longer. We must acknowledge an unspoken fact: Those who work in the performing arts are truly essential workers, and without them, we risk a great cultural depression.

I have the privilege of representing thousands of professional musicians who, in normal times, perform all over New York City every day. These are the musicians who fill the pit at your favorite Broadway show, perform in clubs across the five boroughs, teach in our city schools, are members of your local symphony, record the soundtracks to top films and TV shows, play in the world’s premier orchestras, give your children music lessons, perform in the house bands for “Saturday Night Live” and other late-night shows, play at your wedding, and much more. Musicians are not the same as every other type of artist, but in many ways their lives parallel those of visual artists, actors, dancers and others.

The musicians I represent navigate careers in the arts that, in the best of times, include tremendous uncertainty, hardship and sacrifice. Their dedication allows New York City to be the arts capital the world. Where else can you see “The Lion King” on Broadway in the afternoon, “Porgy and Bess” at the Met in the evening, and late-night jazz at Dizzy’s, all in one day?

According to the mayor’s office, New York is home to one of the world’s largest and most influential music ecosystems, supporting nearly 60,000 jobs, accounting for roughly $5 billion in wages, and generating a total economic output of $21 billion. On the larger scale, the arts contribute $763.6 billion to the U.S. economy, which is 4.2% of the gross domestic product — more than agriculture, transportation or warehousing. And the arts employ 4.9 million workers across the country. This is not some indulgent industry; it is part of the very foundation of our city and our country.

But everything has changed for the arts now. Seven months into the pandemic, artists and the city of New York are being throttled, almost without exception. From the house band at the Village Vanguard to the Queens Symphony to Broadway and Lincoln Center, the arts have been silenced. Virtually every person working in the arts and entertainment sector has lost their job.

Yet there is hardly any discussion of this in New York — and no plan in sight.

Clearly, live entertainment with large audiences pose a public health risk. This means the current economic crisis is necessarily harder on the arts than almost any other sector. Broadway and Lincoln Center have canceled performances through the spring, making it likely performances will not return on any regular basis until the fall of 2021. This means 18 months of mass unemployment — and a hibernation of the arts without precedent in modern history.

We can’t take this much longer. Musicians, actors, stagehands, scenic designers, singers, dressers, ticket takers and many others working in the performing arts will not survive without help. These talented artists and workers create much of our most treasured culture. Our elected officials and those running artistic organizations must ask themselves what a great cultural depression could mean for New York City and the rest our country.

But it’s even bigger than that. The arts are what make us human and what gives life its greatest meaning and pleasure. Culture is what endures historically and what stands the test of time through famine, plague and war. The arts serve our communities, get us through tough times, connect people around the world, support whole economies of tourism and performance venues, and create millions of jobs across the United States.

What would our world look like if we lost our connection to accessible music and the arts as a whole?

What if “Hamilton” wasn’t there to bring new generations of kids to the theater, if the stages of Lincoln Center were silent, if your favorite local jazz club or music venue closed, if there were no longer street performers, and if your child’s music teacher were no longer available?

If arts workers in New York City and across the country don’t get economic help soon, the arts will never be the same.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The obvious example from our own history is the New Deal. During the Great Depression, the U.S. government invested $27 million, a huge sum in those days, to employ artists, musicians, actors and writers via the Works Progress Administration.

In the present moment, look at countries like Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Australia, South Africa and South Korea. Specifically, in the U.K., workers who cannot do their jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have up to 80% of their wages covered by the government. On top of that, the U.K.’s public funding body for the arts announced a $190 million emergency relief package for artists and arts organizations affected by the ongoing public health situation, specifically earmarking $23 million in emergency relief to freelancers in creative industries who were not sufficiently covered by the government’s existing bailout package. The U.K. and other countries are making sure that their cultural institutions and artists will survive the pandemic. They know that culture is a cornerstone of their societies and well worth the investment.

But here in New York and across the United States, we still lack the leadership. No one has yet to step up with bold plans.

Elected officials need to deploy the arts in service to its citizens immediately. Our country needs culture and entertainment now more than ever to bring people together and help heal us from what has been a brutal year. Regardless of how polarized our country is at this time, we can find common ground through the arts.

Let’s design new programs for arts education in schools across the country. Put together plans for large-scale, safe, outdoor performances supported by government money.

Organize a national weekly broadcast of live-streamed performances that the entire country can tune in to. Help restaurants and hotels recover by providing them with government-funded grants to hire small groups of professional musicians as they slowly reopen. Fund performances to be streamed directly to our first responders while they take a break on the job.

Organize additional livestreamed performances for hospital patients and those who are forced to stay indoors. And when we activate these much-needed performances and programs, allow for a small “pandemic relief fee” to be added to each ticket or transaction. This fee could be passed on to front-line arts workers who are doing the critical work of lifting all of our spirits. Let’s continue collecting that fee over the next few years as the arts reopen and recover.

All this will help artists regain their long-term footing and it will stabilize the arts in this country.

These modest investments would keep us artistically sustained while we navigate the pandemic. Our communities need these experiences now, and we will all be better for it.

In addition to government funding, patrons of the arts have always played an important role in the preservation of arts and culture. Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars in generous donations sustain arts institutions across the country. Unfortunately, more often than not, that money never makes it to the artists themselves. At this critical juncture, when artists will be out of work for the foreseeable future, patrons must make sure their donations are earmarked to help the actual arts workers who create the concerts, theatre, opera and ballet that they are generously supporting.

What message does it send if donors prioritize the building of new halls while the artists who perform in these halls can’t afford their rent right now?

Society has a duty to prevent a great cultural depression, and we have the ability to do so. We must make the choice to fight for the arts and send direct aid to performing artists so that this crisis doesn’t force them to find another career, quit the local symphony, not return to their Broadway show or stop giving lessons to your kids. If artists can’t survive, then culture can’t survive.

We simply must recognize that culture is the heart of society — and the time to save it is now.

Krauthamer is a professional horn player in NYC and president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.

This piece was first published in the New York Daily News here on Oct 25, 2020