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        It is time for a creative solution


        August 30, 2023 | Julie Baker

        In February of 2021, Californians for the Arts (CFTA) was quoted in a New York Times article about the Otis Report on the Creative Economy and a CFTA study about the impact of COVID on the arts workforce. “Arts workers are suffering from “fragile economic foundations” and “devastating and immediate loss of income,” said Julie Baker, the executive director of Californians for the Arts. “We are facing a California creativity crisis and what we are calling a cultural depression.”

        In fact, before COVID we had been ringing the alarm bell with policy makers about the rising costs of employment due to AB 5 , warning that fewer venues and performing arts organizations would be able to sustain operations and the effects of historic undercapitalization could hinder organizational capacity to employ arts workers. During COVID, our work shifted to making the case for reopening the arts and relief funding. In August of 2023, equipped with a new report from CVL Economics and headlines about performing arts closures across the country, it was time again to convene practitioners to compare notes, examine challenges, and harness new opportunities.

        Over a period of eight days, CFTA traversed the state to work with local community partners to convene a series of regional conversations in San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco, entitled, “Adapting in Crisis: Toward a Resilient Performing Arts Sector.” (Watch videos and view presentation slide decks.) While the headlines share a doom loop for the nonprofit performing arts, the overall sentiment at the meetings with registrants totalling over six hundred for the four events, was towards solutions and being creative in the face of adversity. As many expressed, they are used to crises and they will continue to evolve, adapt, innovate and emerge stronger.

        While some have looked at adapting their own venues for rental revenue and others are looking for empty spaces to repurpose for community revitalization and creative financing to own their own spaces, many felt encouraged that while producing theater and performing arts is a risk in itself we might as well take this moment to take those risks and work with the artists and programming we want to explore. Staying true to your mission and your art was a consistent message from panelists sharing both how they are addressing and surviving in this moment.

        Many of the panels focused on programming and audience development and questioned: who is involved in creating performing arts and decision making? Who is telling the stories? Who are you welcoming at your venue and how do we create spaces that are less transactional, more meaningful and engage the audience and patrons not just to purchase a product but to engage in the process and to see themselves as partners in the creation.

        There was a common thread for economies of scale; building partnerships and sharing expenses and applying for funding together. While it was acknowledged that the sector has been historically undercapitalized by public and private funding, there was also a reflection on how grant making can be made more accessible including an emphasis on unrestricted grants, multi year funding and a focus on equitable distribution to organizations of color. And while it is common for our sector to silo and fight over a scarcity of resources, we are far stronger when we support and nurture the entire ecosystem by working together to increase the overall investment in arts and culture. It was also noted that most communities have seen a decrease in reporting about the arts and arts reviews which also contributes to audience decline as well as building portfolios for emerging artists.

        Some shared how community engagement and education programs are easier to finance and bring in revenue while others shared they have had to reduce programming in order to stay in business. Many expressed frustration over traditional business models and are looking at what we need to do differently to sustain our creative organizations so we don’t fall apart if we have to shut down for a few days. Others reflected that a systemic issue exists in the public realm that “just because we love what we do, we shouldn’t be paid well for it.” In addressing the need to change systems that are broken to allow the sector to thrive and not merely survive, some felt that in order to rebuild something different, we need to start over. There is much more to be explored to disrupt the business models from solidarity economy to impact investing and business training for creative entrepreneurs along with guaranteed basic income and portable benefits, affordable housing and space, healthcare and childcare for artists, but like the art that is performed, there are many unique ways to write and tell our story that must be fleshed out and staged.

        The data presented by CVL Economics also created a compelling narrative that supported what most were experiencing in terms of revenue, jobs losses and increased expenses. In addition, the study builds the economic case for public support for nonprofit performing arts organizations including an illustration of lost state and local tax revenues and facts such as for every 100 jobs in the performing arts, there are another 156 downstream jobs that contribute to community economic growth. The study made clear, a healthy performing arts sector is a path for vibrant communities.

        Narrative shift was discussed including how we frame this current moment. We asked for example, should we be leading with headlines that audiences are not returning and our business models don’t work? Is that a compelling argument to garner support? Instead, how can we reframe the narrative that arts work for communities, are a public good, and a part of the solution and that by investing in our workforce we can build creative solutions to greatly benefit all communities. In fact, as many downtowns are losing business infrastructure due to work at home, how can live events/performing arts fill that hole to keep downtowns alive with activity. example: Downtown San Francisco: Will Soaring Retail Vacancies Create Room for Fun? How can the arts help combat the epidemic of loneliness and mental health? Why can’t we, for example, build an Arts on Prescription model in California like they have in Massachusetts? What is the role of arts in changing minds, behavior and systems to combat the devastating impacts of climate change, racism and poverty? There are so many ways we can tell our story to demonstrate arts and in particular nonprofit arts impact and value and by doing so we are not compromising the integrity of the artistic practice but showcasing its transformative potential.

        For years, the nonprofit performing arts community has relied on philanthropy, some public investment, earned revenue through ticket sales, merchandise, bars, parking etc. and a workforce that is willing to work for low wages which we know cannot continue. Public investment in the nonprofit arts in the United States is historically dismal compared to other developed nations such as Germany, Canada and England and in California, ongoing public investment in the arts is less than a dollar per capita falling behind states such as Florida and Tennessee with most rural and communities of color having far less access to public and private funding.

        Collective and organized advocacy to build the case for investment in arts and culture is effective and necessary. In fact, we have seen a 2500% increase in funding for the arts in CA since 2001 but we are far from where we should be. We’ve seen other historic wins including an arts education ballot measure that will realize state investment up to $1 billion annually (Prop 28) and legislation passed that addresses creative workforce development (SB 628) and a $500,000 state investment to create a CA Nonprofit Paymaster Program.

        Grassroots advocates with leadership from labor (Actor’s Equity) and employers (Theater Producers of Southern CA) and our own lobbying organization California Arts Advocates and author Senator Anthony Portantino developed a policy solution to address the increased costs for employment in nonprofit performing arts with SB 1116 which is now law. However, as of the writing of this blog post, SB 628 and SB 1116 remain unfunded. We need to insist that these bills are funded and able to make good on the solutions they promise. Now is the time to work together for the systems change needed to build models that are not only resilient but flourishing with investment from the public we benefit.

        Out of crisis there is always opportunity. We saw it when at the height of COVID, the nonprofit and for profit parts of the creative ecosystem worked together to get unprecedented state and federal investments for economic recovery. We are creative, we are smart and we are not going anywhere. Let’s continue the conversation but let’s put our words into action. Whether you want to work on this at the local, state or national level, there is a place for everyone to create the change we want to see. As advocacy and public policy development is our lane, we will continually look to the government for some of the solutions but more importantly, resources. Government is the largest institution we will interact with in our lives and it is our tax money too. It is our right and civic responsibility to demand that it work for us and prioritize what we know will bring joy, healing and benefit to all. It is time for a creative solution and we are here for it. Join us!

        Note: If you are interested in having this conversation in your community, email: We also acknowledge that this first series on the performing arts was primarily but not exclusively focused on the nonprofit organizations, networks, associations and venues and less from the perspective of the individual artist who we will also continue to feature and work with to organize for thriving wages, benefits and 360 degree view solutions for the sustainability of creative practices.

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