Prior to the arrival of COVID-19 and its associated impacts, according to studies completed by Americans for the Arts, arts and culture activities nationally accounted for over $166 billion in economic activity—supporting 4.6 million jobs and generating $27.5 billion in state and local tax revenue. Locally, 1,700 jobs, $64 million in spending, and $6.5 million in state and local tax revenue were associated with arts and culture. Of course, arts and culture contribute much more to our community than economic activity, adding to its vibrancy, quality of life, and the well-being of so many. Over the course of the next few blog posts, I will highlight the contributions of three key aspects of our local economy, describe how they have been impacted by the Coronavirus, what is being done to aid these sectors, and what the future may hold. This first post focuses on arts and culture and will be followed by healthcare and bio-medical research and small business.
A recently issued study from the Brookings Institution lays bare the incredible impact COVID-19 has had on the creative economy and within it, most especially those engaged in the arts. The study “Lost Art: Measuring COVID-19’s devastating impact on America’s creative economy,” estimates that nationally 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales associated with fine and performing arts were lost in the period between April 1 and July 31. This represents 50% of all jobs within those industries! Locally, while the evidence is more anecdotal than statistical, hundreds, if not thousands previously employed in the performing arts or in support of arts and culture venues and organizations have filed for unemployment. One need only acknowledge the closed or only recently partially reopened venues—Jefferson Center, Berglund Civic Center, Taubman Museum of Art, Center in the Square, Mill Mountain Theater, the Spot on Kirk, and many more—to quickly grasp a sense of the local impact. When you add the nearly complete void of events, gigs and performances in any location, you can further understand the depth of the impact and its implications. The words of Dr. Michael Friedlander, founding Executive Director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC are informative: “The vibrant arts community and the cultural richness of Roanoke have been major factors in the ability of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC to attract leading medical research teams and their families to Roanoke.... We are very fortunate to have such a rich and vibrant cultural ecosystem here. There is no doubt that it is a major contributor to the economic vitality of Roanoke....”
As noted, there are obvious economic and tax-related implications associated with the lack of activity. Perhaps just as significant is the impact on our community’s quality of life and sense of place. Imagine Roanoke without its symphony orchestra, without Mill Mountain Theater, without performers at the Five Points Music Sanctuary, or your favorite restaurant. Imagine Roanoke without poetry or book readings, without art galleries or shows, without the many festivals that celebrate our diversity, or without your favorite Broadway production. All of that and more is possible if appropriate actions aren’t taken and if we don’t soon have the virus under control.
The arts help us heal, help us process the world around us, and help us celebrate what makes us and our place in the world special. If we fail as a community to figure out a way to help sustain our artists, performers and venues, we will lose a significant part of what makes us successful.
Thankfully our community is resilient, especially those engaged in the arts. As the referenced Brookings study indicates, the arts have survived traumas in the past—the Black Death in 14th Century in Europe and the 1918 global flu Pandemic to identify just two. But recovery is not a certainty. Locally, artists and venues have innovated and adapted—performing online, conducting virtual art shows and sales, hosting virtual tours and events, conducting outdoor performances, remaking themselves into learning centers supporting area youth attending school virtually, etc. Artists and venues have availed themselves of what state and federal resources have been made available to retain employees, pay bills, and adapt their service model. In addition to its annual funding allocation the City, through its Arts Commission, has financially supported muralists, collaborated on a new urban arts initiative and anti-racism book series, and offered technical support. Further, based upon guidance from a citizen-led task force, the City is dedicating nearly half a million of its CARES Act recovery funds to supporting arts and culture organizations and performers – these links provide more information: https://www.roanokeva.gov/2606/Recovery-Funds and https://www.roanokeva.gov/2599/Star-City-Strong-Recovery-Fund-Task-Forc for additional information.
Still these efforts will not likely sustain these individuals, organizations and institutions for long. More robust and sizable supports are needed from the federal and state governments and from philanthropic and corporate supporters. While the demands on all of these is greater than ever, failing to intentionally and significantly support the arts in our communities will leave us emotionally (and economically) poorer for it. Also, performers, organizations, venues, and events need each of our individual support like never before, whether in the form of donations, subscription or membership renewals, or even booking performers for smaller, personal events.
I have no doubt that when we are able to once again gather in large groups, attend concerts and festivals, and visit museums and galleries without restrictions, we will do so and we will do so earnestly. But first we need to make certain the performers, organizations, and venues survive to be there for that moment.
-- Bob Cowell