American Artists Need A Federal Bailout

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The COVID-19 crisis has thrown much about our society into sharp relief. It has drawn attention to the flaws in our systems, and forced us to ask what and who we really value. For artists this experience has been somewhat heartwarming: a plethora of organizations and municipalities have already begun efforts to provide grants for visual artists. These groups have spoken, saying that they value artists and while the amounts of money raised for such efforts has not been large the fact that they exist has been heartening, as they demonstrate that a clear majority of Americans wants to support the country’s artists in these dark times.

Unfortunately, this support has not yet been reflected by Congress. Last week’s $2 trillion stimulus carried no money for artists. European and British governments have always been more supportive of the arts than that of the US, but the Arts Council England, the country’s leading cultural body, has pledged £160m in an emergency response package available to its cultural organisations. Meanwhile, the German federal government has passed a sweeping €50 billion aid package for the country’s cultural sectors. 

Our country’s stimulus bill calls for just $75 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and $75 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities. When it comes to money specifically allocated to visual art, we can only point to $7.5 million earmarked for the Smithsonian.

Here’s what we, the undersigned, propose: 

  • $20,000 in the pocket of every working artist in the United States, courtesy of the federal government, with checks distributed shortly after the passage and signing of legislation
  • With an estimated 247,000 fine artists in the United States, that sum comes to $4.9 billion (very modest compared to Germany’s investment)
  • Sound excessive? It’s not: the Works Progress Administration’s initial appropriation in 1935 was also $4.9 billion, but back then that represented 6.7% of the country’s GDP. With today’s GDP in the range of $19.4 trillion, $4.9 billion works out to be about .02%.
  • In return for this modest investment, Congress may ask for one artwork in return from each recipient of a bailout, to make its municipal buildings like its courts, its DMVs and its schools more reflective of the country in the 21st century. 

Visual artists are some of the hardest working Americans. Most of them work second jobs to support their passion, and these are exactly the kinds of jobs that are at jeopardy right now. The gig economy already left many many of our artists without health insurance or retirement benefits. Now it threatens to leave them without food. 

The undersigned call on both houses of Congress to bail out America’s artists. 

We can and should do this.