Last Saturday, as a light drizzle fell over New York City, a sizable crowd of artists, advocates and supporters rallied among the colossal governmental buildings surrounding Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square. The Arts Workers Rally — complete with musical performances, live painting, dancing and speeches — issued forth a call for immediate and equitable relief for artists and independent cultural workers.
Speakers on stage at the May 8 demonstration, emceed by drag performance artist Miz Jade (Davon Chance), stressed the importance of arts workers to the economy in New York state and city and urged legislators and officials to allocate relief funds and state budget money directly to artists and small nonprofits. A tautly pulled banner in front of the stage punctuated this point, spelling out “Trickle down funding leaves art workers last.”
“The idea is that public money should be for the public good,” Chris LaCass, an organizer for Save Our Storefronts, told ALL ARTS. “And in a crisis like this, the public good is definitely helping the people who need it most from the bottom up, rather than having all the money filtered through larger organizations.”
Assembly member Harvey Epstein, who represents the East Side of Manhattan, stated on stage that though relief funding was secured in the recent New York state budget — passed in April at the tune of $40 million for arts and culture recovery in fiscal year 2022, adding to the state’s existing annual $40 million arts grant program — more work needs to be done.
“We need to ensure that New York state and the nation helps repair the art community, not just by giving money through PPP [Payment Protection Program] funding and unemployment, but real structural changes for artists who need the support,” Epstein said. “We need job programs. We need employment opportunities. We need support. We need to help them reopen the arts institutions and get people back to work. And there’s a comprehensive plan that we need to do.”
Last week, the League of Independent Theater posted a petition on behalf of the Arts Workers Coalition to the New York State Council on the Arts outlining a list of demands, which include prioritizing funding for historically marginalized communities, non-profit organizations with operating budges under $250,000, independent artists and those who have received little to no emergency relief, in addition to creating streamlined application processes and additional programs.
After the rally, multidisciplinary artist and LEIMAY Foundation co-founder and artistic director Ximena Garnica shared that those present came together to push not only for “equitable relief, but for a new legacy of funding” that centers artists over institutions.
“Overhauling the arts funding system will require bold and radical imagination,” she said over email. “It will require arts workers, leaders, community members, government representatives and advocates to come together to reset the current funding mechanisms and start a new era for the arts in our city.”
She added that a meaningful thread from the rally for her was the “affirmation that Black, Indigenous, immigrants and other art workers in the margins of the city and state funding are inspiring leaders who are part of powerful communities.”
The rally followed an announcement on May 6 by Mayor Bill de Blasio that revealed a $25 million plan to invest in hiring New York City artists to create public works. The recovery program, dubbed the City Artist Corps, is anticipated to provide jobs for over 1,500 artists throughout the five boroughs. Details for how these funds will be distributed are yet to be released.
“We’re going to hire artists, musicians, performers,” de Blasio said at a press conference, noting that the jobs will cover pop-up performances, murals and other community projects. “We want to give artists opportunity, and we want the city to feel the power of our cultural community again.”
In the announcement, de Blasio cited the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a guiding light for the project, stating, “We take inspiration from the New Deal, because it was not only about helping people to survive the Depression, it also led to amazing opportunities for great artists.”
Organizers at the rally argued that these funds, while providing necessary employment to many individuals, do not offer enough support for the arts community at-large.
“Do we celebrate [the City Artist Corps program] as a win? Absolutely,” Melody Capote, executive director of Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), said. “It’s something, but it’s a drop in the bucket. What happens after this summer?”
“As the cultural capital of the world, which is what New York City touts itself as being,” she said, “the small, mid-sized arts organizations — those that are culturally grounded, culturally specific in neighborhoods that are otherwise marginalized and ignored — are not getting the support that we need to help the city to recover.”
As emphasized by demonstrators, the New York City arts sector has been particularly hard struck during the pandemic. A report from the New York City Council’s Data Team found a 69% decrease in arts employment when comparing July 2019 and July 2020, or a drop from 96,900 employed artists to 29,800 — though the prevalence of gig work in the industry makes these numbers harder to pin down.
Musical artist Kelsey Pyro, who performed a piece called “The Voice” at the rally, said that she hopes “people are really listening and that there can be more funding delegated to the arts educators, places where art happens, theaters, smaller arts nonprofits.” She added that during the pandemic, she also lost 90% of her teaching artist work.
And while the city charts a path to reopening as COVID-19 restrictions lift, a May 10 impact update from Americans for the Arts found that nearly half of the organizations surveyed estimate that it will “take until 2022 or beyond” to get to pre-pandemic employment levels.
According to some gathered at the rally, among the challenges facing small nonprofits as they gear up for in-person openings is how to tackle rent when shows and events have been halted since last March. A piece of white fabric at the back of the crowd held the names of venues shuttered during the pandemic.
“I know everyone in my audience, and I keep meeting new audiences. And that human connection is what we do; it’s creating space for people to exist,” Theaterlab founder Orietta Crispino said. “And that’s why I fight to pay rent. I fight to protect that idea of human gathering, joyful gathering. Where we learn, where overcome our biases. It’s really a practice of democracy. And that’s what’s exciting … and then we have to pay rent, unfortunately.”
As attendees tucked away their rain-soaked umbrellas and wandered off the square at the rally’s close, they carried away posters designed by Soho Renaissance Factory artists Amir Diop, Manuel Pulla, Konstance Patton, Sule and Yanne Bree Cabanaro, bringing with them messages produced by Justin Teodoro that read “Art heals, builds and transforms” and “Without arts workers there is no art.”
“Art is activism; our artists are the activist voice in this country,” CCCADI’s Melody Capote said. “And without the artists, we lose a voice.”
Top Image: Wide Awakes Dance Corps at the Arts Workers Rally on May 10. Photo: Heidi Russell.