The Downfall of the Cultural Industry During the COVID Pandemic

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Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

The global shutdown has undoubtedly caused multiple sectors of society to reinvent the wheel in order to survive. 

Many organizers across industries have scrambled to stay afloat and fight the side-effects that have surged in communities beyond the physical symptoms of the virus. Unfortunately, those involved and working within the arts and culture industry have been heavily impacted due to the nature of these practices. 

On an economic front, it’s well known that the arts contribute more to the national economy than the construction, transportation, warehousing, travel, tourism, mining, utilities, and agriculture industries, according to Americans for the Arts. 

In the context of the pandemic, this has meant an innumerable number of these workers and artists being furloughed or laid off, as well as needing to close their doors to the public, resulting in unprecedented losses. 

In particular, music, performing, and visual arts have suffered dramatically due to their difficulty in transforming physical spaces, landmarks, and attractions into merchandise that can enter the virtual marketplace. 

Like many other productions and institutions, Broadway and Off-Broadway productions have been closed for several months with overwhelming uncertainty as to when they will reopen up their doors. 

As a $1.8 billion industry and a significant part of New York City’s artistic lifeblood, theater artists and production crews have been hit hard. The enclosed and intimate nature of the practice has made it impossible to know when venues will be opened again, especially as new cases start to spike across the nation again. Though many have taken to Zoom to put on shows and carry out performances, the financial impact on its makers and community has been insurmountable. 

Amid urgent actions to “flatten the curve,” the economy’s consequential turmoil has caused our cultural industries to become negatively impacted. It is estimated that, on a national scale, the economic impact of nonprofit arts and cultural sectors has been $14.2 billion since the COVID-19 outbreak.  

In the ongoing survey from Americans for the Arts, artists, arts organizations, and arts agencies of all types, genres, sizes, and tax statutes are accounted for in this report. It’s projected that the median financial impact is around $30k per organization.  

New York State Senator Jose M. Serrano, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation, reported that the crisis has especially hard hit the arts and culture sector. “Not only does this industry serve as a major economic engine and job producer,” Serrano stated, “but the arts are transformative, uplifting and educating while building cultural bridges for all New Yorkers.”

In a statement made by the president of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, the average arts and culture nonprofit had fewer than eight weeks of working capital while the average American symphony had less than 15 days. Alongside this, the financial burden is even worse for nonprofits serving Black, Asian, Hispanic, and indigenous communities.  

Transforming Virtual Spaces

In places like Puerto Rico, the arts and culture scene had already been struggling before the pandemic. From museums to art venues, many cultural spaces on the Island had been looking for financial incentives to support their work and innovating their practice to stay afloat. Puerto Rican actor and comedian Ricardo André Lugo expressed that the pandemic’s consequences represented a need to transform the industry once more.  

“Artists, and in particular actors, have been trying to reinvent themselves since Hurricane María. Every time a crisis hits, art and entertainment are the first things to get cut,” Lugo says. “It’s been a journey of needing to look for yet another way to reinvent ourselves and figure out how to do art. We need an audience — we work for people and with people, so when the pandemic started, everything stopped and made us question how to continue doing this.” 

Like many other artists transforming their work to a digital space, Lugo worked as a script supervisor for an innovative Zoom play called El Último Mensaje”: an interactive experience centered in an interrogation room where the audience chatted with the actors in order to get to the bottom of someone’s disappearance. 

With four sold-out shows and over 400 registrants, the turnout surprised the ten-person cast. As a standup comedian, Ricardo also took the leap and launched an online stand-up performance that garnered over 300 registrants. 

Though the outpouring of support went beyond the production teams’ expectations, Ricardo expressed how different the experience is. “The technological side of figuring out how to put on a quality production is one of the most challenging parts,” Ricardo expressed. “Another really challenging aspect is that, for comedians like me, the audience’s reaction makes up 50% of the material. It’s really difficult to do comedy without that back-and-forth laughter from the audience.” 

A Source of Vitality for Communities

When taking a step back and looking at the nurturing impact the arts have on society as a whole, the lack of it has left a dent in our communities. Studies have shown that our cultural organizations are major stakeholders in boosting communities’ morale and vitality. 

In a survey conducted by the National Center for Arts Research, one of the nonprofits responded, “our programs have always served as a place of solace as the arts offer spaces for people to heal and seek solutions. We must exist to help people weather the crisis psychologically and compliment organizations who are offering social services for displacement, health care, and food.”  

Though many mutual aid funds and sizable endowments have been born out of an attempt to mitigate the effects of these shutdowns, it’s projected that the long-term impact of these losses will ripple for years to come. 

Unfortunately, the downsizing of cultural and creative institutions will not only have an impact on employment, revenues, and innovation, but it will also undoubtedly affect citizens’ well-being and vibrancy of communities. 

While the magnitude of the impact has exposed the realities of the most vulnerable producers of culture and art operating on the margins of financial sustainability, it has also demonstrated their unparalleled ability to innovate and make the most of what they have even in isolation.