jonetta rose barras: COVID-19 and the arts — past and future — in DC
- Written by Jonetta Barras
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With Mayor Muriel Bowser set to begin reopening DC after the city’s weekslong closure amid a public health emergency, there are legitimate concerns about the future of our arts and culture industry, including artists and other personnel. Much attention has been paid during this pandemic to the plight of hotels, restaurants and small businesses. However, for the uninformed, nonprofit arts organizations are also businesses. They seem to have been treated as superfluous institutions or fillers to the economy.
They are much more than that, explained George Koch, who has been a leader in the arts and creative economy movement for more than 30 years. He argued the “theater industry” and the “performance industry” are “two important drivers that bring people to a community.”
“The question is, How can they be supported?” he told me during an expansive interview earlier this week.
For many years, organizations like Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Arena Stage and GALA Hispanic Theatre not only produced stellar performances, but also assisted the bottom line of small restaurants and food shops in the vicinity of their institutions. Truth be told, there probably would not have been the vibrant 14th Street corridor we witnessed prior to the arrival of COVID-19 were it not for Joy Zinoman and Studio Theatre or Margery Goldberg, who for years owned and operated Zenith Gallery near 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW.
Later, Goldberg and others in the arts industry relocated to 7th Street NW. They helped kick off that corridor’s renaissance, although their contributions often are forgotten behind the legend of Abe Pollin and the Wizards’ and Capitals’ sports center now known as Capital One Arena.
“We’ve got a homegrown industry — nobody in the city decided they wanted a theater industry the way they decided they wanted a digital industry,” said Koch. “It needs to be thought of like the restaurant industry.
“We need to think about what we are going to do over the [next] two-year period to support those industries so they don’t disappear,” he added.
That’s logical — except the Faith, Arts, Culture, Entertainment, Sports and Hotels (FACESH) Committee within the ReOpen DC Advisory Group structure established by the mayor suggested continued closure of museums, galleries and theaters until either Phase 2 or Phase 3. That means hundreds of artists or gig workers will be unemployed, possibly without any benefits, for months to come.
I am not surprised by the recommendation, presented with little regard for its devastating impact. Throughout my more than 30 years in DC, I have seen artists and arts groups get the short shrift. A few years ago, then-DC Council member Jack Evans persuaded his colleagues to provide a dedicated funding stream for arts groups, which found themselves during the budget season fighting each other over scraps.
Bowser may have proposed $38 million for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in her 2021 budget, but that won’t be sufficient to protect artists and arts organizations against the devastation caused by the continued closures.
Nor will the funds provided for “gig” workers in the federal coronavirus-inspired CARES Act. Under that legislation each eligible person is entitled to up to 39 weeks of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The checks are currently slated to drop by $600 per week after July 25, however.
What happens to arts workers after that? Equally important, what happens to the businesses where they worked? Not unlike small, boutique restaurants, if arts companies are permanently closed, an important aspect of the city’s rich cultural life also will be lost
Koch and others have been pushing to avoid that. No slouch when it comes to arts and the economy, he is the founder and president of the Center for the Creative Economy, a DC nonprofit that advocates for six interlocking industry sectors that represent 75,000 workers. Koch also is a visual artist who helped found the Jackson Art Center and create the popular Artomatic, a predecessor of Art All Night.
He worked at the U.S. Department of Labor. Before retiring, he was a special assistant to the assistant secretary of labor for employment and training, and prior to that served as a program officer at the Office of Policy Development and Research at the Employment and Training Administration.
When I first met Koch back in the late 1970s, he had assisted in the formation of a collaboration among the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO, the U.S. Department of Labor, the DC Department of Labor (now the Department of Employment Services) and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Collectively, they established Arts DC, an arts training program funded, in part, through the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). Arts DC matched unemployed artists with existing arts organizations.
“One thing we said in Arts DC was that if you’re an actor, it [wasn’t] so much to get you a position to play Othello, as it was to get you close [and keep you close] to the theater community,” said Koch.
Arts DC echoed the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, which later became the Work Projects Administration and ran from 1935-1943. By the time that program ended, 8.5 million men and women had been employed nationally.
Between 1977 and 1982, more than 300 artists were hired through Arts DC, the majority of whom were African Americans; they were placed in 100 arts and cultural institutions, according to federal records. Many Arts DC graduates have gone on to successful careers. For example, Sheila Crider is a well-known abstract visual artist. Anne Becker, a poet and literary producer, became the poet laureate of Takoma Park, Maryland.
When I entered the program, I was a young unemployed mother, poet and writer. I received arts management training through the Support Center; I was promoted to the position of program manager for Arts DC. I eventually left to become a consultant for several years at the John F. Kennedy Center’s Education Department Programs for Children and Youth. I produced cultural festivals and was fortunate to have one of my original children’s plays debut there. My career could have fallen flat were it not for Arts DC’s assistance during the couple of years when I struggled to find a firm footing as a creative writer.
In addition to advocating for the creation of a new and improved Arts DC-type program, Koch said the District could look south to Asheville, North Carolina, for other ways it might assist artists and stabilize the arts industry in the nation’s capital. That city is allowing artists to use vacant storefront property for three or four months, he told me. “They can enliven windows or create events,” continued Koch. “Mostly they will help keep commercial districts alive.
“It addresses the emptiness while providing opportunities for artists and bringing people to neighborhoods,” added Koch.
Not so long ago, DC seemed to embrace such creative solutions. Until the mayor announced the health emergency, the DC Department of Public Works funded a successful anti-graffiti program, hiring artists to paint murals. After COVID-19 arrived, that program, which could have been a source of inspiration for residents while keeping artists employed, was canceled.
Locally, nationally and globally, actors and other performers have sought to use various video platforms to continue practicing their art. The National Endowment for the Arts has distributed millions of dollars made available through the CARES Act.
That’s all good. But a grant here or a grant there won’t be enough to sustain the arts industry, any more than it can for independent restaurants and other small businesses.
The mayor’s ReOpen committee suggested establishing an arts equity task force. This isn’t just about equity, however. It’s about stabilizing an industry that is doing the double work of serving residents and leveraging its audiences and reputations to boost nearby restaurants and retailers.
“The government needs to shift its thinking around this issue,” said Koch.
I could not agree more.