Originally published on Medium.com
My family came to California by covered wagon in 1849, so I know a bit about pioneer spirit and have faith in the notion it is woven into the fabric of every Californian, regardless of how long they’ve lived here. It is with a trust in that spirit that I appear before you today.
Included in the background materials for the Joint Committee’s Annual Report on California’s Creative Economy, is a piece I wrote entitled “Judgement and the Ghost Ship Tragedy.” I wrote it through tears at 3AM, the night after the fire. I am a performer and writer, and a member of Actor’s Equity living in the Bay Area. Several of my friends and family members had connections to the space and those who perished. And like many in my social network who have lived in or logged numerous hours in quasi-legal live/work warehouse spaces, I naturally thought, “There but for the grace of God go I”. I was also upset about the injustice of the toll artists often pay for living in what has pointlessly if unconsciously become a culturally impoverished nation. I bemoaned the fact that being an artist in the US is staggeringly more difficult than in so many other developed countries where artists are supported and celebrated as culture makers and shapers.
I cited statistics on the arts budgets of numerous countries across the globe. South Korea, with a population of 50 million, invests around $7 billion in its artists and cultural programs. France with its 67 million citizens, spends $10 billion on arts and culture. Tiny Northern Ireland, with a population of 2 million, awards over $21 million annually for arts, theatre, and literature projects.
To be on par with those economies, California, with our population of roughly 40 million, would need to pony up $6 Billion if we use the Korean or French model, a mere $400 million if we follow Northern Ireland’s lead.
As you well know, we are nowhere close to those numbers. The NEA’s very existence is back on the chopping block, though earlier this year we were all relieved it’s anemic budget of just under $150 million actually funded for 2017. On a state level, the California Arts Commission is set to invest $15 million across the state through several different grant programs. That is a bump up from last year, but it obviously pales in comparison to the investment made by far less monied nations that don’t systematically deny artists cultural legitimacy for their indisputable and deeply valuable contribution to society. This is not a partisan issue. There have been several administrations over decades, promoting a bipartisan disregard for financially supporting the arts on a Federal level.
Thanks to the newly released 2017 Otis Report on the Creative Economy, in concert with reports from the California Arts Commission, ArtSpace, the NEA, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics and a number of generous foundations, we do have measurable proof the arts have a significant, positive impact on California’s economy. The creative economy is a massive economic driver for the Golden State, accounting for over $400 billion in total economic output — nearly 12% of our state’s gross product. We also know the arts foster skills that are universally valued across multiple disciplines like team building, listening and empathy skills, leadership and project management skills, self confidence and the ability to communicate across cultural, religious, race, class, gender, age and miraculously, even partisan divides.
A significant percentage of artists, especially those of us in smaller markets, don’t necessarily have full time employment in our chosen field, nor can we afford to take those jobs when and if available, given their typically low pay and the high cost of living in those areas where one can actually find work and others artists with whom to collaborate. That makes the work we do no less valuable to the communities where we are. Every dollar spent on a ticket for a live performance, for instance, nets the surrounding community $5 to $7 dollars for parking, restaurants, construction materials for sets, fabric to build the costumes, etc. Over time, that amount rises in step with the rise in property values that inevitably occurs when the Arts revitalize previously blighted areas.
But artists usually only see a small fraction of that initial dollar. Indeed, they are often denied and made victims of the very revitalization they served to catalyze. Artists’ annual incomes are routinely inadequate to meet even basic needs. This gives rise to a host of problems, many of which constellated so tragically in Oakland the night of the fire that cut so many talented, young lives short.
We are in the midst of what many in the Arts feel is a Reformation; a massive shift both in how we define culture and how we determine who participates in creating it. Technology has brought about an amazing democratization within our field. Equipment that was once prohibitively expensive can now be downloaded for pennies on a smartphone. Anyone with access to the internet is a potential artist, actor or author. That is in turns tremendously exciting and, for professionals watching as people leap from the bleachers to crowd the field, a bit terrifying.
But the fact we have increasing percentages of people participating in culture instead of simply passively consuming it, is not a signal of the “end of days” for the Arts. Quite the opposite! There are wonderful synergies and collaborations resulting from this lowered bar to worldwide arts distribution and the ensuing explosion it has caused in the number of hybrid amateur/professional artists. We simply need to take inspiration from that energy to shape, not shun it. We also need to foster a less passive perception of the arts in general. Polls consistently show people do want to champion public arts funding. They are more likely to turn that passive want into an active need when the narrative shifts from “art as private experiences or goods” to “art as a good that ripples through our communities”.
As much as we would like to believe our heads rule our hearts, at our core we are emotional creatures. (There is a reason why the multi-billion dollar advertising industry plays to our emotions. It works!) The Arts directly message that emotional side, communicating to us on a deeper level – across disciplines and cultural and partisan divides – because they invite us to play, to imagine, to empathize with and listen to one another’s stories without cynicism, animus and fear, and they provide us a safe space within which to do that.
They invite us to reconnect with one another, as well as our own basic humanity, to leave behind our silos and echo chambers. I cannot think of anything we need more right now, than a safe place to understand our fellow citizens with the generosity of spirit the Arts engender and inspire.
I know it represents a paradigm shift to abandon our current commodity based model of seeing the Arts as frivolous, or an extraneous luxury. But during the Great Depression, in the midst of one of this country’s darkest hours, the government turned to the Arts as a legitimate sector to help heal the damage left in the wake of the then collapsed financial system. Forty percent unemployment rates were not uncommon and there were states where more than half of homeowners hadn’t paid their property taxes in years. Yet the Arts were no luxury. They were perceived and harnessed as a survival tool.
My great uncle Moya del Pino was a PWAP (Public Works of Art Project) artist in 1934. He painted murals in Coit Tower, post offices and other public buildings in and around San Francisco. PWAP Artists received between $36 to $46.50 per week. Annual inflation between 1934 and 2017 was about 3.56% which puts Moya’s weekly salary somewhere between $695.03 to $850.50 in today’s dollars.
The PWAP gave way to the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration which continued on to hire ten thousand artists until 1943, a full two years in to WWII. The pay was less than the PWAP at $23.60 per week, but it was still a healthy amount. In today’s dollars it would have been around $400 per week.
But now, the Arts in America are perceived as some kind of weird beggar; disconnected from reality, limping around aimlessly, wearing a monocle and a tuxedo, stopping only to blow kisses into a mirror. The Arts were once rightly understood as a vehicle to inspire and uplift communities at their most vulnerable. Imagine if we had responded to the 2008 financial crisis with programs that supported, reflected and empowered our broken communities the way the WPA did. There is no need to invent the wheel, here. Look to PWAP as a beta version of the WPA for your model. Provide California artists with universal basic income. Let us be your test population.
I am asking you to take a quantum leap, like those intrepid travelers who abandoned the safety of home back in 1849. As fellow Californians, as Pioneers… Lead this nation on the path that both returns the Arts to their legitimate and rightfully dignified place in society, and propels our State confidently forward with the assurance our creatives are on board to keep the engines humming far into a bright and innovative future.
As the Otis Report has shown every year for the last decade, though artists often work outside the market-only oriented economy, we consistently and considerably contribute to it. We rely not on noblesse oblige, but on the concept that those who prosper in the market-only oriented economy while benefiting off of artists efforts, understand they have an implicit moral and civic obligation to complete the circle and support those efforts in such a way that we can do our work without having to risk our very lives in substandard spaces. As mentioned earlier, the reality is people want to complete that circle.
A 2015 poll conducted by Americans for the Arts found 87% of Americans consider the arts an important factor in quality of life. 55% of us would actually double the NEA’s budget.
The problem lies in how the conversation about supporting the Arts is framed. Instead of seeing the Arts from the perspective of citizens concerned about the vitality of their communities, the argument tends to focus on economic benefits or personal enrichment. This approach reinforces a pattern of perception that predisposes people to think of the Arts from a passive consumer perspective. Those who prosper in the market economy, whose cultures are connected, whose communities are revitalized and made desirable, whose stories are told and experiences shared, whose children are inspired and educated to the power of metaphor and abstraction, need to hear clear messaging that investing in the Arts is not just about sparking imaginations and feeding spirits or indulging in personal experiences. It’s about ensuring the health, durability and vibrancy of their own communities. We need the help of citizens, not consumers.
Basic needs. Shelter. Safety. These should never be beyond a working artist’s reach — and yet so often they are. I am asking you to abandon a broken and deeply damaging model that perceives culture as a luxury and treats artists like second class citizens. Substantially increasing support of those responsible for making the goods that create the gains, should at the very least, be worth as much to California as one tenth of 1% of the creative economy’s total $406.5 Billion in economic output — or 2% of the $16.7 billion in taxes from the creative economy. That’s roughly $400 million dollars.
A new study by the finance site GOBankingRates finds that of the 50 most populous cities in the country, San Francisco requires the most income to reach a comfort level determined by the 50–30–20 budgeting rule. Under the rule, 50% of income covers necessities, 30% covers discretionary items and 20% is for savings. If your income is sufficient to cover your cost-of-living expenses, you can live comfortably. You’d need to earn over $110k to achieve that goal in San Francisco — more than New York, Honolulu or D.C. In fact, the three largest cities in the Bay Area ranked in the top four: San Jose was second ($87,153); New York third ($86,446) and Oakland fourth ($80,438). Renters in the Marin County/San Francisco metro area will spend more than 77% of their salary, on average, to pay rent in 2017. The national average is 38.7%.
Shelter is at the very base of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”. Providing affordable, safe spaces to work and live and perform is another great starting point to support the thousands of arts jobs that make the creative economy possible; jobs that cannot be outsourced or offshored.
We need to step up and embrace arts education as critical to our core competencies.
We need to proudly sponsor professional artistic development to forge the path ahead and stay competitive as leaders on the global creative stage. And we need to lift up those who dedicate their lives to honing the skills that shape not just how we see ourselves, but how we relate to others and how our communities interconnect; those who are the beating heart of the creative economy’s success: the artists themselves.
I believe California, with its long and storied history of forward thinking innovators, inspired visionaries and universe dent makers, is poised to lead the nation with a pioneering, comprehensive policy that takes the perilously thin thread from which artists now dangle, and weaves it back into the fabric of what makes this state so golden.