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A New Federal Arts Program

Terry H. Schwadron

April 30, 2020

We are buoyed by hearing music during this coronavirus pandemic, just as we are at times of high emotion — births, deaths, wars and conflict of all sort.

Indeed, it is an interesting reflection of our culture that at times of anxiety, we turn to the arts. All of a sudden, we hope a poet or lyricist who can capture the moment and infuse it with hope, or hear a melody that makes it easier to deal with isolation and sadness.

We love it as well-known musicians line up to offer their talents to raise money for protective equipment for medical workers or food for police and emergency workers. We are in awe as The Metropolitan Opera beams full-length operas for free, or when dancers, actors, museums take us on safely protected ringside seats right at home.

It’s good for a month, two months to have inspiring, community-giving work.

But it doesn’t pay the rent.

The reality is that as the rest of the nation just starts re-opening manufacturing plants, agricultural and transportation hubs and even restaurants and boutique stores, our theaters, arenas and bars that are home to our entertainment workers will be at the end of the line.

Before this coronavirus hit, we already were dealing with a Trump administration that each year has cut out support altogether for the National Endowment of the Arts, the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other government supports for the arts. Before we had virus, we had school systems dropping music and art programs. We had written rules for unemployment that left out freelancers and workers in the gig economy, including almost all artists.

The New Normal?

In the new normal, then, are we going to embrace some kind of federal programs to re-kindle the arts or are we going effectively going to allow museums, symphony orchestras, dance performance to be pushed out to die?

In his more hopeful moments, you can see Donald Trump pining for a return to some recognizable time in which people can return to work, companies can push his sorta-booming economy and people can return to sports arenas.

This president, who ignores the Kennedy Center honors for performers each year, who has eliminated White House concerts, who thinks of music only as crowd-hyping anthems for his political rallies, never mentions the arts.

I’ll own up that this is a personal question for me as well as a societal policy issue. I’m a freelance musician, a trombone player in community orchestras that are filled with older players framed for coronavirus infection, a jazz player already having troubles finding places for our six-piece jazz group to play, even before bars closed for months to come. My dancer wife is spending all day on Zoom doing her Actors Fund counseling job helping dancers, musicians and actors think through this crisis. Our son is a pro, classically trained indie rock musician and songwriter, our daughters university teachers in dance and art, my brother a violinist, our friends poets, dancers and musicians.

In New York City, perhaps 9 percent of the population had been working directly in the culture sector of the economy. It is difficult to think about putting New York back to work without thinking about theater venues, music and dance concert sites and the more informal stages of local restaurants and bars.


A Federal Program

My question is simple: If we value music, opera, theater and dance in a time of crisis, what will we do to keep our cultural workers?

Individually, artists will undergo tremendous effort to earn rent money as online arts entrepreneurs or teachers, or by taking those emerging contact worker and health industry jobs, or by going back to online school to train for the next possible job. And we’ll continue to enjoy seeing members of the Bolshoi Ballet or Rockettes working out in their kitchens.

Mr. President, I am baffled that from a government point of view, you see differences between putting coal miners back to work and not giving even a mention to rehiring musicians and dancers.

In an earlier era to get out of the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project (1935–1943) employed photographers and artists to drive the rekindling of visual arts in the United States, part of the programming of the Works Progress Administration. There was a Federal Music Project as well, with jobs for musicians and composers, as well as programs for writers and theater producers.

All produced work that has lasted for decades thereafter — and recognized that while the arts reflect our souls, our bodies need to eat.

A similar emergency distribution of arts funding would recognize the limitations of an online world. Technology companies, which to date have tried to squeeze musicians into offering all-but-free content, should be included with the effort. Simply, people who produce art should be paid.

If music and art are essential to make sense of the moment, we should ensure that the music and art makers are too.


Written by

Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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