Matthew-Lee Erlbach first realized he would become an actor and a playwright when he saw “True West” on Broadway at age 14 – “It was like gods performing rituals to mortals,” he says. It took years before he understood “just how vulnerable those gods are.”
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, “our businesses are being eviscerated, and our friends and family are being evicted from their apartments,” Erlbach says, “but we were being left out of meaningful economic relief and even out of the political conversation.”
Since June, Erlbach has been a co-organizer of a campaign to save the arts in America, Be An #ArtsHero, with Labor Day actions planned across the country — including an 8 a.m. gathering in Times Square limited to 100 participants, holding up signs at a social distance and singing “Will I?” from “Rent” (see video below):
‘Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care. Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?”
followed by 100 seconds of silence — one second each for the 100 Senators that the group hopes to convince to pass the DAWN Act (Defend Arts Workers Now) a bill that would create a fund of $43.85 billion to give grants to individuals, cultural spaces, and related businesses. Erlbach wrote the bill.
His journey from writer, actor and filmmaker to, well, lobbyist, was “accidental,” but not a total surprise given his history: He wrote and performed a solo show in 2013 entitled “Handbook for An American Revolutionary,” based on his interviews cross-country with everyday Americans. Three years ago, he wrote an article for the Huffington Post making an economic argument for the arts, The Arts Economy Is Worth Billions. It’s an argument he refined and updated in An Open Letter to the Senators of the 116th U.S. Congress, which asked for economic relief for individual arts workers and arts organizations. The letter was published in American Theatre Magazine’s website on July 25th, and has since gained 10,000 signatures.
“The story the arts have been telling about ourselves has not been working in getting the directly proportionate economic relief that we require,” Erlbach explains his approach. “This is not about ‘the Arts.’ This is about the $877 billion in value the arts and cultural sector add to the economy annually,” according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. “It’s about the 675,000 small businesses that just happen to be arts businesses. This is about 5.1 million arts workers in your neighborhood who are struggling to survive, because they cannot go back to work because there is no work.
“If coal were an $877 billion industry in America, you bet your bottom dollar that every Senator and every Congressperson would be elbowing each other trying to help.” The request of $43.85 billion in grants is five percent of the total annual value.
Once the letter was published, and so many signed on, the question became: What next? How could the organizers get the Senators to take action? It turns out “the legislative process isn’t as as simple as Schoolhouse Rock! Offices were saying, ‘This is all great, we’re with you, here’s the Senator’s record, you should write some bill language. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel–look for something that exists and send us something back.’ What they are basically saying is, “Make our jobs easier to help us all get the thing done.”
“Lobbyists write bills and this is their process. So, we’ve all become activist-advocate-lobbyists…and we’re doing it all through an incredible team of volunteers working 16 to 19 hour days.”
What Congress Has Done
Congress passed the CARES Act, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, which was signed into law on March 27, and provided almost two trillion dollars in economic relief. The National Endowment for the Arts got $75 million of it to distribute to arts organizations. But arts organizations were also able to get funds through the Paycheck Protection Program, and individual artists were eligible to receive Economic Impact Payments of up to $1,200 per individual, with more for a household with children.
And then the states received money to boost pandemic unemployment compensation.
(The Americans for the Arts put together a chart on Funding Opportunies for Arts Organizations and Individual Artists)
What Congress Hasn’t Done
“I don’t want to diminish the great help that CARES was able to give our institutions,” says Erlbach. But CARES wasn’t enough, and some of its provisions have already expired.
“The problem with CARES is they gave $75 million to the arts, but $50 billion (in grants and loans) to the top ten airlines,” says Erlbach. “That $75 million does not address the needs of our constituents. The other problem is that the NEA has to distribute funds evenly across 50 states, but Illinois has a $30 billion arts economy and Wyoming has a one billion dollar arts economy, so the relief needs to be proportionate.”
New York’s arts economy is $120 billion. “Thanks to America’s unique COVID-19 crisis, our entire industry, much of which is centered in New York City, is three breaths from dead,” theater musician Matt Hinkley wrote in the Daily News “We have no curbside pickup; we cannot virtualize everything we do; and the interactive nature of our business means we will be among the very last to return to work. Millions of Americans share our pain — the loss not only of substantive livelihoods, but also our identities, our connection to a purpose and community we treasure.”
A report in August by the Brookings Institution entitled Lost art: Measuring COVID-19’s devastating impact on America’s creative economy
estimated that between April 1 and July 31 half of all workers in “the fine and performing arts” lost their jobs ( full report as a PDF)
“The HEROES Act could add $10 million to the NEA and some of that money directly to state arts agencies and regional organizations.”
The RESTART Act S.3814, introduced a week later, would extend the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established to support small businesses and establish a loan program
On July 22, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) introduced the Save Our Stages Act, S.4258, which would authorize the Small Business Administration to make grants to eligible live venue operators, producers, promoters, or talent representatives. It is a bill promoted by the National Independent Venue Association
A day later, Rep Rob Kind (D-Wisconsin) introduced The Encores Act in the House, which would give a credit to venues for 50 percent of any refund they had to make for canceled shows.
Congress is scheduled to return from its August recess this week and may take up some of these bills.
But Erlbach says his DAWN Act is “the only comprehensive Arts Workers Relief Bill that addresses our ENTIRE Arts Economy.” It has yet to be introduced, but “the future of DAWN is bright. There is movement in the House and Senate, things are happening with the bill that I cannot disclose yet. This bill is only a week old, and we have had meetings with 40 Senate offices, and we are moving very quickly.”
The organizers’ argument seems to be gaining ground. “The arts sector includes museums, theaters, opera houses, dance companies, libraries, cultural spaces, theme parks, production sets, and the essential businesses that support them: costume shops, light and sound businesses, scenic shops, PR firms, and the list goes on,” Erlbach says. “If our institutions fail, a highly interdependent commercial ecosystem collapses — retail, hospitality, restaurants, tourism.
“We don’t have the equivalent of a Department of Transportation or a Department of Energy. We are filling a void to be a squeakier wheel and tell the economic story of the arts worker. We wish we didn’t have to do that, but we do.”