PictureThe Sweetwater Music Hall crew.

For the first time since, well, March, the Mill Valley arts community – largely unable to function because of their inability to gather people in a room to celebrate art in all its splendor – has gotten a few doses of good news on the relief front.

Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a $4.5 billion spending plan for 2021, including $25 million dedicated for small cultural institutions, such as art galleries, that have been unable to operate or are otherwise financially challenged by the pandemic. Coupled with the federal Save Our Stages Act, which was approved as part of the $900 billion federal stimulus package in December, provides $15 billion “in dedicated funding for live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions. That could bolster the 94941 sector most ravaged by the COVID-19 crisis: live music, theater and entertainment venues like the Sweetwater Music HallThrockmorton Theatre and Marin Theatre Company, which have been hit the hardest in the 94941 arts community.

That funding bolsters the state’s $500 million California Small Business COVID-19 Relief Grant Program, as does the second round of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which set aside $284 billion in new funding for small businesses forgivable loans to help them retain and pay their workers if they meet certain conditions.


Jason Farago, a critical at large for the New York Times, wrote a fascinating, lengthy piece this weekend that hung on two key points: that we desperately depend on the arts as human beings, never moreso than amidst an horrific pandemic, and that there are road maps available to make sure that the arts not only survive, but that we can make 

You should read the entire piece, but here are some excerpts:

We need the catharsis of the arts

The function of art, Aristotle told us, is catharsis. You go to the theater, you listen to a symphony, you look at a painting, you watch a ballet. You laugh, you cry. You feel pity, fear. You see in others’ lives a reflection of your own. And the catharsis comes: a cleansing, a clarity, a feeling of relief and understanding that you carry with you out of the theater or the concert hall. Art, music, drama — here is a point worth recalling in a pandemic — are instruments of psychic and social health.
Not since 1945 has the United States required catharsis like it does in 2021. The coronavirus pandemic is the most universal trauma to befall the nation since World War II, its ravages compounded by a political nightmare that culminated, last week, in an actual assault on democratic rule. The last year’s mortal toll, its social isolation and its civic disintegration have brought this country to the brink. Yet just when Americans need them most, our artists and arts institutions are confronting a crisis that may endure long after infections abate.

Artists need relief

Professional creative artists are facing unemployment at rates well above the national average — more than 52 percent of actors and 55 percent of dancers were out of work in the third quarter of the year, at a time when the national unemployment rate was 8.5 percent. In California, the arts and entertainment fields generated a greater percentage of unemployment claims than even the hospitality sector. Several hundred independent music venues have closed; art galleries and dance companies have shuttered. And in my own life, I’ve listened to painters and performers weep over canceled shows and tours, salivate over more generous government support in Europe or Asia, and ask themselves whether 2021 is the year to abandon their careers.
Until last month, when the outgoing U.S. president belatedly signed a stimulus package with targeted arts relief bundled within, this government had barely acknowledged the crisis that Covid-19 has posed to culture. Nor have private philanthropists filled the gap; while some large foundations have stepped up their disbursements, total giving to North American arts organizations has slackened by 14 percent on average.

W.P.A. for a New Day

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. promised that America could “build back better,” and throughout 2020 the president-elect extolled F.D.R.’s New Deal as a blueprint for American renewal. For the administration to show that sort of Rooseveltian resolve — and, with control of the Senate, it just about can — it’s going to have to put millions of Americans on the federal payroll: among them artists, musicians and actors, tasked to restore a battered nation.

The Works Progress Administration was a latecomer to Roosevelt’s economic recovery plans, begun in 1935 as part of the so-called second New Deal. (It) it endures as its most visible legacy, especially in the murals that adorn the country’s post offices, courthouses, school buildings and even prisons. And it should offer the Biden administration a blueprint for a new, federal cultural works project, which treats artists, musicians and writers as essential workers, and sees culture as a linchpin of economic recovery.
Today cultural advocates like to offer a roll call of American artists employed by the W.P.A. as proof of its necessity: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Louise Nevelson, Norman Lewis, Alice Neel, Jacob Lawrence, Philip Guston. The programs, notably, offered Black artists more public support than at any time in the 20th century. Charles White’s mural “Five Great American Negroes,” now in the collection of Howard University, was a W.P.A. commission. But the bulk of the 2,500-odd murals the program underwrote, plus piles of sculpture, painting, posters and advertisements, came from artists who never achieved fame.

Such a program might be especially valuable in America’s rural areas and in economically imperiled regions: the parts of the country where Mr. Biden did worst electorally, and whose support for President Trump came in part from a legitimate grievance that cultural elites looked down on them.

Get money into artists’ pockets

In the past, unemployment insurance was available only to those “employed” in the first place — and artists rarely were. A violinist furloughed from a full-time orchestra job could get unemployment, but not a gigging saxophonist whose nightclubs were shuttered. A receptionist laid off from a talent agency qualified, but not the actors the agency represents.
That changed in March, when the previous Congress passed the first coronavirus stimulus package. It included a program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which, for the first time expanded unemployment eligibility to independent contractors and freelance workers. In their ranks are millions of actors, writers, artists, musicians and dancers, who are three and a half times more likely than the average American to be self-employed, according to a 2019 report from the National Endowment for the Arts.
A singer who qualified for pandemic assistance didn’t just get unemployment from her home state. She was also eligible for the same $600-a-week federal supplement as others receiving unemployment: a critical lifeline, though one that expired in July. (There have been two smaller supplements since then. The current $300-a-week boost, bundled into the December stimulus package, expires in mid-March, long before stages are expected to reopen.) For all its shortcomings, the program has established a precedent that the Biden administration must build upon: that artists, like other gig workers, are full participants in the national economy — and need to be taken care of as such.
So the most immediate measure the new administration can take to stanch the arts crisis is simply to get money into artists’ pockets — by pushing Congress to expand and improve unemployment benefits for them and other independent contractors and gig workers.

An arts center inside the executive office of the president — led, why not, by a “Dr. Fauci of culture” — could be sharper and swifter than a full department. During last year’s campaign, Mr. Biden had a phrase he invoked with almost musical regularity: the election, he always said, was a “battle for the soul of America.” 

Save Our Stages is a Band-Aid when we need a full-scale tourniquet

Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary nominee and the new Congress also need to disburse additional funds to keep other arts professionals on the payroll. Bundled into the December stimulus package was the Save Our Stages Act, which earmarked $15 billion for small-business grants to music venues, movie theaters and the like. The grants (initially, 45 percent of a theater or club’s 2019 income) are a fantastic start — but it’s a Band-Aid when we need a full-scale tourniquet. Berlin’s nightclubs and other for-profit cultural venues were eligible for 80 percent grants.
And given both the slow rollout of the vaccine and the continued need for social distancing, venues for the performing arts will be among the last public places to reopen. Congress ought therefore to bundle a second round of Save Our Stages emergency funding with a measure also drawn from the German bailout: cash for pandemic-appropriate infrastructural improvements, from new ventilation systems to digital distribution tools. I used to like a dirty disco; now I want gleaming HVAC.

We need this

I’ve always been wary of arguments about art’s “necessity.” But a soul-sick nation is not likely to recover if it loses fundamental parts of its humanity. Without actors and dancers and musicians and artists, a society will indeed have lost something necessary — for these citizens, these workers, are the technicians of a social catharsis that cannot come soon enough. A respiratory virus and an insurrection have, in their own ways, taken the country’s breath away. Artists, if they are still with us in the years ahead, can teach us to exhale.