BU Today feature: What the Biden-Harris Administration Can Do to “Build Back Better” the Arts

POV: Dean Harvey Young

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As pandemic continues, performing arts organizations need an injection, too

This article was originally published in BU Today on February 13, 2021. By Dean Harvey Young

To survive COVID-19, the highest risk populations need a shot in the arm. Whether you live in Alaska or Massachusetts, a vaccine dose—more likely two—is what separates you from pre-pandemic normalcy. The arts industries are no different. While they await the vaccination of their audiences, they also need an injection of financial support.

The arts seem like they’re okay. They’re not. Yes, tens of thousands of people paid to watch a livestream production of Ratatouille, which began as a crowd-sourced TikTok musical. Yes, “@Home” concert series have allowed us to virtually travel to our favorite singers and musicians’ living rooms. However, creative artists are among the first to acknowledge that these mediated works cannot replace the thrill of the live event.

Part of the magic of the live arts is the experience of sitting or standing alongside community members, sharing in a moment, collectively feeling moved to laughter or tears, and perhaps acknowledging a kinship and connection with others. Even recorded arts are better when the experience is shared. The cinematic blockbuster came into existence after the arrival of television because folks realized that they especially enjoy encountering certain stories outside their homes and with strangers.

The pandemic has shuttered the doors to live performance venues that held, nurtured, and bolstered community. The arts industries need help to recover: funding as well as expressions of support. Here is what the Biden-Harris administration can do to Build Back Better the arts.

Forgive loans to nonprofit arts organizations. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has been a lifeline to small and midsize arts organizations. Although furloughs and layoffs have been rampant in the arts industries, PPP prevented employment losses from becoming even more severe. Although PPP loans were designed potentially to be forgiven, the uncertainty concerning whether the loans actually will be forgiven inhibits planning and investments for the future. The forgiveness of all loans used to preserve jobs in nonprofit arts sectors would allow the arts industries to plan for 2022 and beyond.

Save Our Stages. Last December, the Save Our Stages Act (SOS), which created the (less cool-sounding) Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), was signed into law. That grant will distribute approximately $15 billion dollars to a range of arts and live event organizations—from theatres to cinemas to museums to zoos—negatively impacted by COVID. Although the funding has been approved, instructions on how to apply have yet to be made public by the US Small Business Administration. Unlike the PPP, the SVOG (aka SOS fund), will have fewer restrictions and will enable a wider set of investments (such as equipment purchases and facility renovations) to help the arts resume operation. An immediate opening of the application portal (as well as expedient processing of applications) is needed.

Create a COVID-19 task force on reopening the live arts. Breath plays a leading role in the live performing arts. Wynton Marsalis’ solo can only happen because he is literally forcing air through a trumpet. Singing, acting, dancing, and more require the forced expulsion of air. As the threat of COVID begins to decline thanks to widespread vaccinations, there need to be more studies and improved federal guidance on how to bring people back together safely to create and perform before a live audience. What steps are needed to bring people into greater proximity—eventually shoulder to shoulder—to share in the experience of the live event?

Model how to support the arts in person. In much the way that President Biden and Vice President Harris invited the American public to watch them receive their vaccinations, they publicly should present themselves as consumers of the arts when the time is right. They should be among the first to show everyone that it is safe to go back to the theatre or concert hall. They should show us what being an engaged audience looks like in a world in which COVID may still exist, but can be managed. Through their actions, President Biden and Vice President Harris can remind us that we collectively cannot experience the fullness of life without the live arts.

Read the original article in BU Today, Boston University’s award-winning daily website, featuring breaking news and research stories, plus coverage of students, faculty, staff, alumni, campus events and programs.

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