Creativity Drove the Inauguration—It Should Drive the Recovery, Too

On Inauguration Day, we witnessed an explosion of arts, culture, and creativity in Washington, DC. President Joe Biden and his Inauguration planning committee commissioned massive temporary public art pieces to commemorate the 400,000 lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, invited three international superstars to sing during the ceremony, quoted poets and singers, produced a “Celebrating America” concert, and capped it all off by sharing with the world the extraordinary talent of Amanda Gorman, the U.S. Youth Poet Laureate and the youngest person ever to perform poetry at a presidential Inauguration.

Arts and culture were the backbone of the entire day—they carried the symbols of a broken country knitting itself back together, they celebrated our history and articulated visions of our shared future, they consolidated in striking images and economical language the whole complex ethos of a new presidential administration dedicated to unity, hope, and an American Renaissance. It was an inspiring thing to see, and hopefully bodes well for the position, and support of, arts, culture and the creative economy in the Biden/Harris Administration.

Following the Inauguration, President Biden began the work—signing a flurry of executive orders including a set that addressed the most pressing issues of our day, including racial injustice, social inequality, and looming environmental disaster. In the days and weeks to come, he will step from those first signatures into the much more complex negotiations to build and then pass first the American Rescue Plan, a $2 trillion relief package, and then a subsequent large-scale workforce and infrastructure recovery bill—and this is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to how much, and in what ways, the new administration thinks about the centrality of arts, culture, and the creative economy.

Creative workers need targeted, specific relief.

There can be no national recovery, no American Rescue, without the creative economy, and the 5.1 million creative workers who make it up. And right now, many of those creative workers are in dire straits. The impact of COVID has been profound in every state in the country and will continue to be for much of 2021.

According to ongoing research from Americans for the Arts on the impacts of COVID-19 on creative workers:

  • 63% of creative workers were unemployed as of the end of 2020, at a moment when that was about 8 times the national unemployment rate.
  • Creative workers ended 2020 having earned, on average, less than half of what they anticipated earning last year—and with no reasonable prospects for change or additional opportunity until the vaccine is widely available and the sector can reopen, which is between 6 and 12 months away.

Creative workers are suffering from a lack of the most basic human needs right now.

  • 15% of creative workers say they do not have access to clean water for drinking or washing.
  • 1 in 10 creative workers has experienced homelessness, and 1 in 3 has been faced with the threat of eviction.
  • Over 50% of creative workers have experienced food insecurity, and over 40% have been unable to get needed medical help for themselves or family members because of lack of insurance or inability to pay.
  • 55% of all creative workers have no savings to fall back on, having exhausted it over the past, hard 10 months.
  • As mostly independent or gig workers, 83% of creative workers do not have access to paid sick leave, 48% cannot access unemployment, and 62% cannot access affordable housing or food programs.

Artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have higher rates of unemployment than white artists (69% vs. 60%) and lost a larger percentage of their 2020 income (61% vs. 56%). Creative workers—particularly those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 (BIPOC, creative workers with disabilities, trans* creative workers, and others)—started the pandemic at the edge of a fragile financial and social cliff, and now find themselves falling through the safety net. Even as the arts are called to center stage in moments like the Inauguration, these workers, these Americans, are in desperate need of support.

Because many creative workers do not have a single steady employer through which they could afford healthcare and gain access to more permanent unemployment benefits, do not have substantial collateral to access loans or other capital, and in some cases were on the brink of poverty or other insecurity already, the creative class now finds itself in desperate need of targeted, specific relief.

Without it, many in the creative economy may not be able to keep up as the rest of the country attempts to shift towards recovery—and without creative workers, no full recovery is possible.

Investing in the creative economy as part of recovery makes sense.

The good news, however, is that creative workers are anxious to get back to work—83% say that they are ready and willing to use their creativity as part of the recovery. Investing in the creative economy as part of the national recovery makes economic sense, which 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—because they know that there is no recovery without creative enterprise.

With a growth rate of 4.16%, nearly double that of the nation at 2.2%, the arts are a jobs multiplier, creating and sustaining local commercial ecosystems and driving retail, hospitality, transportation, and tourism. When activated through the lens of racial and economic equity, investment in the arts will exponentially grow economies and create hundreds of thousands of jobs that will improve infrastructure, foster community, beautify our public spaces, drive innovation, address mental and physical health crises, and help to heal the soul of America.

In fall of 2020, over 100 organizations, including Americans for the Arts, came together to develop Put Creative Workers to Work, a set of 16 proposals that would integrate the creative economy as a cornerstone of the national recovery. These 16 proposals, which at this point have been endorsed by 2,300 creative businesses and creative workers in all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, have now, through additional collaborative work, been fleshed out into 100 specific action steps, which are a mixture of policy changes, federal investment, and local/state/tribal incentivization that collectively would create or save over 300,000 jobs; commission hundreds of thousands of festivals, new works, and community events; and create billions of dollars of economic ripple effects throughout American communities.

Now is the time to invest in the creative economy—an $878 billion industry that the country cannot recover without. In these days after the glorious, arts-filled celebration of a new President, creative workers across the country continue to hurt, and are anxious to be put back to work to help restart the American economic engine. It is time to put creative workers to work. It’s good economics and good for communities.