Everywhere playwright Matthew-Lee Erlbach looked there was economic catastrophe. His friends were being evicted, laid-off from jobs in the arts with few resources to stop their downward spiral. Doors had been closed, exhibits shuttered, and productions halted amid COVID-19’s unchecked surge. Actors, writers, designers, custodians and millions of rank-and-file employees and gig workers, with no advocate in Congress, were left to split the few pennies that passed for aid. “I was seeing my fellow arts workers try to hold onto the furniture while the floor crumbled beneath our feet,” said the author of the solo play Handbook for An American Revolutionary.
Erlbach is co-organizer (with Brooke Ishibashi, Jenny Grace Makholm, and Carson Elrod) of Be An #ArtsHero, a non-partisan, “intersectional grassroots campaign to get the U.S. Senate to allocate proportionate relief to the arts & culture sector of the American economy.” His first “tool for protest” was an “Open Letter to the Senators of the 116th Congress.” He has followed that with the DAWN – Defend Our Arts Workers Now – Act, a comprehensive arts worker relief policy that would authorize $43.85 billion in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) to make grants to all art workers and to related businesses that remain shuttered due to the pandemic.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Office of Research & Analysis at the NEA, the American arts & culture sector adds nearly $878 billion to the economy annually, provides nearly 5% of GDP, and employs nearly 5.1 million Americans. The DAWN Act’s $43.85 billion package is 5% of the sector’s overall value, proportionate to the $50 billion allocated to the top ten airlines in the CARES Act.
At this writing, the DAWN Act has at least one sponsor in the Senate; organizers are looking across the aisle for another. “There is no economic recovery without a robust arts recovery,” says Erlbach, “Our fates are tied together.”
Joshua Irving Gershick: The late poet John Gregory Dunne said, “Writing is manual labor of the mind.” But many non-artists don’t think of what we do as labor. Why do you think that’s true – if you do think it’s true?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I know it’s true because I see [how little] the government invests in what we do. We are workers. We are laborers. There’s a misconception about what labor looks like: We equate it with masculinity. The arts are perceived as feminine, so they are devalued and treated as “other.” They are romantic, a luxury or extracurricular. That idea is not one I came up with: It’s something Jenny Grace Makholm, my co-organizer, said on our first call together. My reaction was, “Holy shit! That’s exactly right!” Her perspective was a revelation: We do treat being intellectual and being creative as being soft. That is how our government [and our nation] looks at us without realizing they live in a world created by creatives.
Joshua Irving Gershick: How do we reframe this?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: We have to tell our story in a new way: What an arts worker is. What an arts worker does. And it’s not just playwrights and writers and actors and designers, it’s the custodians, the administrative positions and crafts-people. When we talk about arts workers, we must reframe our relationship to the national economy. We are an $877.8 billion-dollar economy. That’s more than agriculture and mining combined. We generate $265 billion dollars more than all transportation combined, yet the top ten airlines were allotted $50 billion dollars by the CARES Act, while we’re fighting over $75 million appropriated to the NEA.
Joshua Irving Gershick: How do you account for this funding disparity?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: Because you have people telling the story of these other industries in such a clear way that it is undeniable that they require government institutions, such as departments of transportation and energy, to advocate for them. If coal were an $877.8 billion industry, as the arts are, you can bet your bottom dollar that Congress-members would be elbowing each other to bail it out. But they don’t see us this way.
Joshua Irving Gershick: You’re saying we need a Secretary of the Dept. of the Arts.
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: Yes. Why is there no Secretary of the Creative Economy fighting for us in government? Because we have been telling the wrong story. A little history: The Department of Labor was created in 1913, the result of labor strikes all around the country and particularly coal miners’ strikes in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Colorado. Then, as now, we had this huge economic split, a Gilded Age. Coal miners could not organize. They were killed for standing up and speaking out. I am in no way comparing the tragedy of the blood spilled during the Coal Wars to what we are going through. What I am comparing is the importance of being able to tell your story to a nation and have them recognize the importance of your existence. The story that arts workers have been telling has not been effective in getting the appropriate government intervention. So, we’re rewriting our story in economic terms. And the economic story we’re telling is powerful: We’re a $230 billion arts economy in California; $120 billion in New York; $46 billion in Texas; $30 billion in Illinois; $8 billion in Indiana; $4 billion in Kansas; and $1 billion in Wyoming. We are everywhere: We’re in every state. We drive communities.
Joshua Irving Gershick: We need to tell a story that conveys how central art making is.
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: Yes! It is the very expression of our Democracy. One of our greatest exports. Arts are why America has been so influential across the world.
Joshua Irving Gershick: Would you advocate a modern-day federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) such as FDR created in the 1930s?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: Absolutely. A Federal Arts Project is central to the economic revitalization of our nation. We need a Creative Corps. Americans for the Arts is working on that. [americansforthearts.org]
Joshua Irving Gershick: We need an Administration with imagination, not only to reboot the arts economy, but also to restructure our larger economy toward green industries.
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: An Arts New Deal intersects perfectly with the Green New Deal because it is a reimagining of the project of human society. The problem is we’ve been taught that our politics is top-down. But it’s not: It’s grassroots. Everything is grassroots. I’m talking to arts leaders and others all across the country to make sure that everyone recognizes that the arts economy is a jobs multiplier. We are big business because we are local business.