Thursday, May 28, 2020

A Call to Action

The arts are one of the most important drivers of the nations's economy. According to the U.S. government, they contribute more than $760 billion a year. That's more than warehousing, more than transportation, more than agriculture.

At least that was true prior to the national shutdown due to COVID-19. America's farmers have enjoyed massive subsidies for years, and an outright bailout by the Trump Administration after our trade war made it impossible for them to make money. As for transportation, both the airlines and the automobile industry receive subsidies and bailouts. But (with the exception of a few NEA dollars Republicans are still trying to take away) not the arts.

Today, all arts organizations are in trouble, and through no fault of their own. Even organizations that built up sizable cushions couldn't be expected to go months having their doors shut by government mandates... especially when the government is refusing to pick up the tab for the mess it created itself through a ridiculously inept response to a pandemic... a pandemic so foreseeable that health experts have been issuing warnings for years.

Yet while the federal government is borrowing huge sums of money to bail out for-profit businesses so they can maintain profits and continue to pay their executives, there has been very little done to aid arts organizations. Perhaps the arts, like libraries and churches, are non-essential. (But not nail salons and tattoo parlors. Those are essential, apparently.) Either that, or it's because businesses can provide bribes--I mean campaign contributions--to politicians, while theaters, libraries, and churches tend to be restricted in their ability to do so.

Some theaters will weather the storm. The Metropolitan Opera, which has laid off employees but continues to provide streaming services to its patrons to keep engaging audiences, will probably get through this mess intact. So will the Public Theater, in spite of their cancelling the free Shakespeare in the Park that has been offered for decades. (That was a loss-leader for them, anyway.) Other theaters, however, have already shut their doors. The Secret Theatre, which operated on a shoe-string budget in Long Island City, couldn't afford to keep paying rent on a space they were forbidden to use. I guess that means there's more space to build luxury condos in LIC.

The question is, will anyone want those luxury condos after we systematically murder off everything that was good about Long Island City, and indeed, New York? Epidemics never stopped people from flocking here in the past. Washington Square Park is built on a mass grave of about 20,000 corpses, the majority of them victims of Yellow Fever. (We thought that the 21st century would be the first century in the history of civilization not to have to dig mass graves. Guess what? We were wrong, as Hart Island can bear witness.) In the past, the museums and theaters in New York always stayed open, even during the Great Influenza that began in 1918.

Though previous (and far more deadly) epidemics ate into the profits of Broadway shows and reduced the number of visitors to museums and galleries, they never shuttered them. Now, the government has ordered these places closed, and it seems to have no real plan to help them get through this mess and reopen again. If political leaders don't take action, we will be a much poorer city (and nation) for having squandered the most important assets our society possesses, while letting bankers and business executives once again walk away with ridiculous amounts of taxpayer funds. But it isn't bankers and hedge fund managers that make New York great. Disease never kept people from the city before, but what drew them here, even at the risk of their lives, is being destroyed.

If we really wanted to, there are many things we could do to save arts organizations, rather than throwing them under the COVID bus while rescuing Wall Street yet again. For one, we could provide loan forgiveness for all nonprofits through the Main Street Lending Program and the Economic Stabilization Fund. All for-profit businesses are eligible for loan forgiveness (essentially free money) if they have up to 10,000 employees or $2.5 billion in revenue. As we've seen, a lot of major corporations have taken advantage of the program to avoid "laying off" top executives, even as they have slashed payrolls of the people who actually do the work. Nonprofits, however, are ineligible unless they have at least 500 employees.

Wait a minute, didn't I say that big organizations like the Met and the Public were the ones most likely to make it through this thing anyway? Yup, but they're the ONLY ones eligible for money right now. Very few theaters have 500 people on their payroll. (And I'm pretty sure NONE have more than 10,000, so the upper limit is irrelevant to performing arts.) Why the 500-employee minimum? Well, like I said, the small fry can't bribe--I mean, make campaign contributions to--politicians. Writing out virtually every theater in America while making sure that small "businesses" including hedge funds are eligible for free taxpayer subsidies is absurd, but exactly what one would expect from the present Administration. That's why Congress has got to act not just to expand the existing programs, but to create special safeguards for the arts.

At a time in which we are providing massive amounts of money to for-profit corporations, it is unconscionable that we are continuing to ignore the needs of the non-profits that provide the lifeblood of our city and our nation. Remember, this is an industry that's 4.2 percent of the GDP, which means it's FOUR TIMES bigger than agriculture! If farmers deserve bailouts for the self-inflicted wounds caused by the trade war, why do we expect a much larger industry to go it alone during the self-inflicted chaos caused by the government's ineptitude in handling a virus?

Perhaps it's because farmers are good, honest people, while artists are a bunch of godless heathens who don't deserve to live. Given the coldness with which this country has treated the more than 100,000 Americans who have died of the virus, many of them in the New York City area, that appears to be precisely the attitude our government has adopted.

Well, I've got news for you, Washington. The artists aren't the ones who are godless.