California Arts Advocates Make Case for Artists as 'Second Responders' to Pandemic

3 min
Kayo Anderson does a regular singalong online to boost the spirits of people dealing with poverty in Los Angeles on behalf of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. (YouTube screenshot)

It didn’t take long for California’s artists to spring into action after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton started offering free virtual drawing classes to keep confined kids busy from San Francisco. Musician Kayo Anderson conducts singalongs on behalf of the low-income and homelessness non-profit, Los Angeles Community Action Network, to help boost people dealing with poverty.

When facing disasters like wildfires and global pandemics, California looks to workers like firefighters and nurses to save lives. But what about rebuilding those lives after they’ve been saved? Arts advocates say that’s where arts and culture workers prove to be essential.

Examples of arts stepping in to bring healing, to uplift and offer reflection to depressed and anxious communities are flourishing across the state right now, despite the fact many artists and cultural groups have been hit hard by the failing economy.

According to a recent California Arts Council study looking at the early economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the total losses for arts organizations across the state stood at more than $35 million at the end of April. Organizations estimated an average revenue loss of $193,642 each, and individual artists estimated an average personal income loss of $23,857 each.

"We're absolutely decimated right now," said Julie Baker, executive director of the advocacy group Californians for the Arts. "The arts and culture sector were the first to shut down and likely will be the last to fully reopen."

With California currently facing a more than $54 billion budget deficit, Baker is worried about the future of the state’s financial support for the beleaguered cultural community. The arts budget currently stands at $26 million, putting it about halfway down the list nationally for state support of arts and culture programs.

"Our goal right now is to see the California Arts Council's budget protected," Baker said. "But if there are going to be cuts across state agencies, do not cut the arts budget in greater number than any other agency."

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Arts advocates like Baker are planning to pursue these goals by persuading lawmakers that cultural workers are essential to the disaster recovery process. She wants them to be thought of as "second responders," stepping into the fray soon after the mobilization of first responders, like healthcare workers and firefighters.

"A first responder comes in and saves a life," Baker said. "A second responder comes in and helps to rebuild a life."

Making a case for artists as second responders — an idea previously floated in the aftermath of the 2017 Sonoma County wildfires — could help bolster funding for the arts.

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"Arts advocates have got to carry whatever flag will fly the highest in the eyes of policymakers, decision-makers, government, private foundations," said Bay Area-based arts consultant Marc Vogl.

But Vogl cautions against the temptation to see all art through a therapeutic lens.

"There will be a lot of chafing around, and frustration among many artists that their programming has to be further constrained," he said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery has one or two corporate entertainment executives among its ranks, from Disney and Netflix. But as yet, does not include a single leader from the arts and culture world. (The governor's office declined to grant KQED an interview for this story.)

"It's disappointing because Gavin Newsom has been very supportive of the arts, both as a governor and as a mayor," said Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area, a regional performing arts service organization. "I've heard him talk about how the arts are great for our souls, for the life of our city, and also how they're a real part of the economy."

And even though many lawmakers like to tout the fact that the creative sector is a major economic driver in California, advocates know that public funding for arts and culture is a tough sell at the best of times — and especially so during periods of financial hardship.

"A number of conservative lawmakers are arts donors themselves," Erickson said. "But they don't believe that public monies should go to the arts."