You Can Survive Unemployment in the Arts

The 2020 economic collapse has been compared to the Great Depression by economists—and the arts and culture sector is not immune to the financial devastation impacting many sectors across the U.S.  Since March, Americans for the Arts has continually tracked the financial impact across the arts sector, and the data is updated weekly. As of Nov. 23, 35% of nonprofit arts organizations have had to lay off or furlough staff, and 10% are not confident they will survive the pandemic. Responses from artists and creative workers indicate that 95% have reported loss of income and their top three needs are unemployment insurance, food/housing assistance, and forgivable business loans. In short, things aren’t looking good for people employed by the arts and culture sector, so let’s start talking about what it means to be unemployed. It sucks, and it’s uncomfortable. But if we are going so survive as a sector, we need to face all the good, bad, and ugly aspects of the current economic depression.

The Great Recession of the late 2000s had a direct impact on my employment as the public art coordinator for the City of San Jose, California. The public art funding was tied up with other municipal funds, including bond projects and general funding. By the 2011 budget cycle the city realized that to cover its financial needs, hundreds of their employees were going to have to be let go, and yours truly was swept up in that massive layoff. It took me over a year and a half to find full time work again.

During that time, I learned some things that I hope can help some of you out there who may be facing the prospect of unemployment or have already lost a job. Let’s start with some reality checks:

Losing your job IS personal. We spend on average 90,000 hours, or one third of our lives, working. In American culture we are identified and valued by what we do. The money we make from work pays for us and our families to live. Taking away a job disrupts your entire life. From day-to-day happenings to that now-canceled vacation you so desperately needed to long-term career planning, what happens when you lose your job personally affects you and those around you.

Losing your job sucks. For many of the aforementioned reasons why losing your job is personal, it is also the worst. The uncertainty of how to pay bills, the interruption in your career, the general disruption to living your life are all part of what makes losing your job suck. Acknowledge this and don’t hide from it. It is going to take time and you are going to need help to adjust to this new way of life.

Losing your job isn’t losing your life. Yes, your life is now a complete 180 from where you were, but you still have a life. You are alive and you can move forward from here. It will be exhausting and requires an open mind, but you can and will get through this.

Acknowledging these three points will help you get started in moving forward. It will take time to adjust to losing a job—especially if it is one you had for quite some time or, like me, a job you dearly cared about and were excited to stay on with for many years. Take some time to yourself when you first learn about your change in employment. Self-care is always important but is especially so when finding out that your position is being vacated. To quote Confucius: “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” You will get through this.

If you’re looking for work or learning opportunities, Americans for the Arts has resources to help: Find arts employment opportunities on JobBank, and visit ArtsU for live and on-demand digital events (many are free) to stay up to date on the arts and culture field.