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How Artists Can Lead a Pandemic Recovery

The “In America: Remember” public art installation in Washington, D.C., commemorated Americans who have died due to Covid-19. The installation, a concept by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, featured more than 650,000 small plastic flags planted in 20 acres of the National Mall.

Photographer: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images North America

Laura Zabel

March 25, 2022, 10:43 AM EDT

The last two years have contained an overwhelming number of crises and traumas — both structural and personal, global and local. Most of us are experiencing imaginative exhaustion. It is hard to believe that people and systems can change, that the future can be better than the present.

This is where art comes in. Change is an act of creation, and that’s what artists do: Through a process of imagining, trying and building, artists create experiences that connect us to our own agency and power. We are in a moment when we urgently need these artists, culture bearers and creative workers who can help us envision and build a future of justice, health and wholeness.

The good news is that artists already exist in every neighborhood, and they are helping businesses districts come back to life, changing narratives around economic justice, and improving our mental health and social connections. However, the last two years have revealed how fragile artists’ livelihoods are and how the economic conditions that impact so many of us — the widening wealth gap, reliance on contract labor and the lack of safety nets like health care, housing and unemployment benefits — also impact artists. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that the overall unemployment rate for artists is still twice what it was pre-pandemic.

To fully realize and benefit from the contributions that artists can make to a more human, equitable and just future, we need to make life as an artist more sustainable and more equitable. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Arts, of which I am a member, recently released a report, Art is Work, that digs into the conditions artists and culture workers face in the U.S. and what we can do to create more equitable systems of support. The report includes four primary recommendations that provide a roadmap for the policy changes we need to become a nation that values our cultural sector and benefits from the innovation and imagination of our creative people. Here are two that seem especially relevant now:

1. Include artists in policy and legislation, especially recovery efforts. Artists need representation in federal, state, and local governments and they need to be explicitly named as a category in legislation and policy. That is the only way to ensure that new pol­icies aimed at building our workforce, sup­porting the economy, and strengthening society will include artists as vital members of the workforce, builders of the economy, and maintainers of community.

While the American Recovery Plan Act and the bipartisan infrastructure deal did not go as far as naming artists specifically, these programs do provide cities and towns the opportunity to partner with artists and creative workers in order to think creatively about the future, to repair harm, increase civic participation and more. Even infrastructure presents exciting opportunities for creative thinking, and I’ve seen this in my work at Springboard for the Arts, an artist-led community development organization based in Minnesota. During the construction of light rail transit in the Twin Cities, Springboard supported more than 200 artists to design projects that helped mitigate the impact of construction on local businesses and made local assets and culture more visible.

2. Understand how creative work happens. Many work-related policies and safety nets are written for people with a long-lasting single employ­ment relationship. That is no longer standard for the general workforce and was never standard for artists. Artists need policy that recognizes as standard independent con­tract work, multiple employers, entrepre­neurship and inconsistent income — and supports workers accordingly.

This is particularly critical, as artists are still struggling to recover from waves of pandemic-related cancellations and the ongoing realities of how little support we have. Changes to systems like unemployment, health care and small business aid will help artists, and many other independent workers, feed their families, pay their rent, and ensure that creative practice is valued.

Artists’ contributions to the work of imagining and enacting a healthier future can be profound, but they do not come about by magic.

Additional recommendations from the Commission on the Arts report include increased public and private investments in the essential local organizations that provide direct services to artists and connect them to critical community issues. More funding is also needed for arts education and arts career readiness, especially at Tribal Colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. All these investments must center more equitable distribution of resources, especially for Black artists, Native artists, artists of color, LGBTQIA+ artists, artists with disabilities and artists in rural places.

What do we get in return if we are able to build better support systems and structures for creative work in the U.S.? At Springboard for the Arts, I have the great privilege of witnessing the contributions of artists to community change. We see firsthand that when we create support systems that value creative people, artists can be essential to the system change we need. Specifically, artists help us create:

Meaning: Everyone needs channels for our rage, pain, joy, shame and pride. Artists help us find those channels, to make sense of difficult things, to explain the world around us. In St. Paul, artists Mica Lee Anders, Hawona Sullivan Janzen, and G.E. Patterson created artwork for a new bridge across I-94, incorporating the perspectives of residents in the Rondo neighborhood which was divided by the construction of the highway in the 1960s. These beautiful projects don’t erase the impact of this devastating harm, but they etch the story of the neighborhood literally into the pavement of the bridge.

Connection: As our world grows more fractured, we need artists to tell the stories and create the experiences to connect us – to our neighbors, to our communities, and across differences. It is hard to change unless we know our story is heard and held. Artist Nancy XiáoRong Valentine’s “The Audacity to be Asian in Rural America: we owe you no apologies” is a series of 12 watercolor and Chinese ink scroll paintings on rice paper that tells the story of her family’s Chinese-American immigrant experience in rural West Central Minnesota. As the project tours rural communities, it connects people to these stories, invites them to consider their own family history, and creates conversations.

Imagination: We need artists to help us believe that things can be different, to see how new ideas or new systems could work, and to encourage us to try. We cannot change without imagining and trying new ways of working. Artist Briauna Williams created a coloring book about economic stability and policy tools that can create it, including guaranteed income. Informed by economic justice and city leaders, the coloring book helps people engage with complex and perhaps unfamiliar ideas.

There is an appetite and a need for this kind of creative collaboration in all corners of the country. Artists’ contributions to the work of imagining and enacting a healthier future can be profound, but they do not come about by magic. Art is labor, and unless we build better and more equitable systems of support for artists, we will continue to miss out on this vital ingredient to help build a more just, more connected, and more human world.

Laura Zabel is the executive director of Springboard for the Arts, an economic and community development agency run by and for artists.

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