America’s Creative Economy: The Impact of COVID-19

I grew up in a musical family—my dad is a children’s performer and songwriter—and the arts have been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I had the opportunity to make a documentary for a C-SPAN education competition, it was natural for me to choose the arts as a topic. 

I hadn’t realized the impact COVID-19 had on our creative economy until I started listening to the stories of many local artists and creative workers. I interviewed a storyteller, a classical violist, a musical arranger, a vinyl record store owner, and several arts administrators, including Americans for the Arts’ very own Randy Cohen.

What I saw right away was a common understanding that the lives of artists have been devastated by the pandemic. Gigs were cancelled, museums closed, incomes lost, and the future remained uncertain for our creative industry. 

Mr. Randy Cohen explained that “cancellations have taken place at virtually every single arts organization in this country; artists and creative workers are among the most severely affected by the pandemic.”

Sean Baker interviews Randy Cohen over video conference for his documentary film.

It seemed almost instinctual for the musicians I spoke with to comfort their communities through online concerts during the pandemic. For example, I helped my dad film a children’s concert for Facebook Live, but concerts rely heavily on the relationship between the audience and the musician on the stage, and a lack of human connection still remained. 

The arts create a safe space where we can recognize our shared connection as human beings, regardless of culture or tongue. Art is a language we can all understand.

In my documentary, Nancy Halverson, executive director of Levitt at the Falls, said, “The arts … help us find each other.” Magda Modzelewska, a classical violinist for the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, further explained that you can ask anybody “what [their] life would be without arts, and they might not realize that it would be very hard and very empty for them to survive without it.” 

Sean Baker with his camera equipmentAs a filmmaker, my job is to tell a story that touches people’s lives. It’s important to me that I make a connection with the viewer. I want them to feel the importance of my story. These artists made it very real, and very personal. Connecting with others is not only the most critical part of storytelling, but also the most meaningful. 

My favorite part of filmmaking is throwing a viewer into a world that I create, if only for a short time. They can look through my eyes and into my heart at an issue, understand my point of view, and make their own conclusions. That’s very powerful and special to me. If there’s any way my documentary can become a voice for this issue, then I’m up to the challenge. 

What I learned most through making this documentary is the importance of the arts to a community and how passionately the artists feel about what they do. The arts have become second nature to many of us, and have been a part of our lives for as long as we’ve been in existence, but there’s more work to do. The arts inspire us, foster our creativity, and build bridges between cultures and communities. We can’t live a meaningful life without the arts. 

At the end of the day, musicians and creative people need to have the necessary economic, social, and personal well-being incentives to rebound from the pandemic and to live. The arts bring value to society and we must focus on our artisans during these trying times.