My wife and I are both in our seventies. We were fortunate to have made a decent living in the arts, first as performers, then as a theatre producer (me), and as a college professor (her). Being in the ever-unsteady fields we chose we experienced many ups and downs. In 1976 while living in New York we encountered some awful times, when the economy took a nose dive that affected our work.
We survived all that and the after-effects of 9-11 and several major hurricanes that devastated the economy of South Florida where we had a theatre we had founded. But nothing was ever quite like this nightmare which we are all living.
Many of our friends in the performing arts are wondering what will come next.
One of them is married, with children, an arts administrator who worked for a large musical organization for two decades, and who recently was let go after fighting a life and death battle with Covid19 and surviving it only to learn that he no longer had a job.
Another two, one of whom is a successful playwright, the other a gifted stage director who quit his position as a drama teacher in order to run his own theatre company full time with his husband, now face the uncertainty of when and how will their award-winning theatre open again.
Even though she did not contract it, a singer friend has had Covid 19 put a stop to all of her freelance singer work – 11 performance contracts and one album recording. All cancelled.
A wonderful theatre actress friend of ours has had all her work evaporate and, after taking early social security, she supplements her survival income by teaching dancing on line.
A composer-pianist and a band leader – both free-lance musicians – neither have worked since March of 2020, nor do they expect to have any more in the foreseeable future.
Many performers are looking for new ways to practice their craft, turning to on-line streaming, which helps them stay busy even if it doesn’t help them earn much if any money.
The facts behind these real-life stories (*) are sobering:
Fact: During the quarter ending in September, when the national unemployment rate averaged 8.5%. 52% of actors, 55% of dancers and 27 % of musicians were out of work.
Fact: The majority of actors, dancers, and musicians who are members of unions are not salaried, and do not benefit from regular paychecks. They work when there is work to have, going when lucky from one gig to the next.
Fact: Before the pandemic the median annual salary for full-time musicians and singers was $42,800
Fact: Before the pandemic the median annual salary for full-time actors was $40,500
Fact: Before the pandemic the median annual salary for full-time dancers was $36,500
Fact: Many artists work other jobs to augment their incomes in restaurants, stores, offices, doing temp or part time. But that work has also dried up. Others augment their income by teaching, another area where brutal cut-backs are taking place.
Fact: The arts and culture sector constitutes an $878 BILLION industry bigger than sports, transportation, construction or agriculture.
Our National Endowment for the Arts continues to barely survive the vagaries of politics, with a meager $29 million – the smallest amount ever allocated to the Endowment from a total federal budget of $4.75 trillion – the largest ever in federal history.
The personal, corporate, and foundation contributions that have for years propped up arts organizations are now being redirected to essential-need causes, even though the arts and the artists who practice them , whether they be classical or pop music or films or theatre or ballet, are essential too.
The arts and culture sector supports 5.1 million jobs, not only artists and performers but essential crafts persons and technicians: makeup and hair stylists, stage managers, costumers, stage hands, front of house personnel, ushers, electricians, sound technicians and designers, camera operators, administrators, construction crews, scenic designers, writers, directors…
Will many of them survive? Some will, some will not. Perhaps some will make it through by changing professions.
One of my wife’s former students got a Real Estate license in New York, and now practices his newly-acquired profession until he returns to work on Broadway as one of its most in demand triple-threat talents.
Another former student of hers has parlayed his green-thumb skills into a gardening business.
Yet another has been teaching Yoga on line although barely making ends meet.
Americans are survivors and, among them, young and not so young artists, most of whom have spent thousands of dollars leaning the skills needed to practice their craft, will not allow that hard earned and already spent money to go for naught. They will do whatever they can even if it means doing what they must for the moment in order to make a living so that some day they can practice what they truly love.
Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com
(*) Several of the statistical facts in this post were obtained from the New York Times article “A Great Cultural Depression Looms for Legions of Unemployed Performers” by Patricia Cohen, who in turn obtained them from the National Endowment for the Arts.