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A ‘Great Cultural Depression’ Looms for Legions of Unemployed Performers

With theaters and concert halls shuttered, unemployment in the arts has cut deeper
than in restaurants and other hard-hit industries.

by Patricia Cohen for The New York Times December 26, 2020

In the top echelons of classical music, the violinist Jennifer Koh is by any measure a star.

With a dazzling technique, she has ridden a career that any aspiring Juilliard grad would dream about — appearing with leading orchestras, recording new works, and performing on some of the world’s most prestigious stages.

Now, nine months into a contagion that has halted most public gatherings and decimated the performing arts, Ms. Koh, who watched a year’s worth of bookings evaporate, is playing music from her living room and receiving food stamps.

Pain can be found in nearly every nook of the economy. Millions of people have lost their jobs and tens of thousands of businesses have closed since the coronavirus pandemic spread across the United States. But even in these extraordinary times, the losses in the performing arts and related sectors have been staggering.

During the quarter ending in September, when the overall unemployment rate averaged 8.5 percent, 52 percent of actors, 55 percent of dancers and 27 percent of musicians were out of work, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. By comparison, the jobless rate was 27 percent for waiters; 19 percent for cooks; and about 13 percent for retail salespeople over the same period.

In many areas, arts venues — theaters, clubs, performance spaces, concert halls, festivals — were the first businesses to close, and they are likely to be among the last to reopen.

“My fear is we’re not just losing jobs, we’re losing careers,” said Adam Krauthamer, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians in New York. He said 95 percent of the local’s 7,000 members are not working on a regular basis because of the mandated shutdown. “It will create a great cultural depression,” he said.

The new $15 billion worth of stimulus aid for performance venues and cultural institutions that Congress approved this week — which was thrown into limbo after President Trump criticized the bill — will not end the mass unemployment for performers anytime soon. And it only extends federal unemployment aid through mid-March.

The public may think of performers as A-list celebrities, but most never get near a red carpet or an awards show. The overwhelming majority, even in the best times, don’t benefit from Hollywood-size paychecks or institutional backing. They work season to season, weekend to weekend or day to day, moving from one gig to the next.

The median annual salary for full-time musicians and singers was $42,800; it was $40,500 for actors; and $36,500 for dancers and choreographers, according to a National Endowment for the Arts analysis. Many artists work other jobs to cobble together a living, often in the restaurant, retail and hospitality industries — where work has also dried up.

They are an integral part of local economies and communities in every corner of rural, suburban and urban America, and they are seeing their life’s work and livelihoods suddenly vanish.

“We’re talking about a year’s worth of work that just went away,” said Terry Burrell, whose touring show, “Angry, Raucous and Gorgeously Shameless,” was canceled. Now she is home with her husband in Atlanta, collecting unemployment insurance, and hoping she won’t have to dip into her 401(k) retirement account.

Linda Jean Stokley, a fiddler and part of the Kentucky duo the Local Honeys with Montana Hobbs, said, “We’re resilient and are used to not having regular paychecks.” But since March hardly anyone has paid even the minor fees required by their contracts, she said: “Someone owed us $75 and wouldn’t even pay.”

Then there’s Tim Wu, 31, a D.J., singer and producer, who normally puts on around 100 shows a year as Elephante at colleges, festivals and nightclubs.

He was in Ann Arbor, Mich., doing a sound check for a new show called “Diplomacy” in mid-March when New York shut down. Mr. Wu returned to Los Angeles the next day. All his other bookings were canceled — and most of his income.

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Mr. Wu, and hundreds of thousands of freelancers like him, are not the only ones taking a hit. The broader arts and culture sector that includes Hollywood and publishing constitutes an $878 billion industry that is a bigger part of the American economy than sports, transportation, construction or agriculture. The sector supports 5.1 million wage and salary jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. They include agents, makeup artists, hair stylists, tailors, janitors, stage hands, ushers, electricians, sound engineers, concession sellers, camera operators, administrators, construction crews, designers, writers, directors and more.

“If cities are going to rebound, they’re not going to do it without arts and cultural creatives,” said Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and School of Cities.

This year, Steph Simon, 33, of Tulsa, finally started working full time as a hip-hop musician after a decade of minimum-wage jobs cleaning carpets or answering phones to pay the bills.

He was selected to perform at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, played regular gigs at home and on tour, and produced “Fire in Little Africa,” an album commemorating the 1921 massacre of Black residents of Tulsa by white rioters.

“This was projected to be my biggest year financially,” said Mr. Simon, who lives with his girlfriend and his two daughters, and was earning about $2,500 a month as a musician. “Then the world shut down,” he said.

A week after the festival was canceled, he was back working as a call center operator, this time at home, for about 40 hours a week, with a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant on the weekends.

In November, on his birthday, he caught Covid-19, but has since recovered.

Performers on payrolls have suffered, too. With years of catch-as-catch-can acting gigs and commercials behind her, Robyn Clark started working as a performer at Disneyland after the last recession. She has been playing a series of characters in the park’s California Adventure — Phiphi the photographer, Molly the messenger and Donna the Dog Lady — several times a week, doing six shows a day.

“It was the first time in my life I had security,” Ms. Clark said. It was also the first time she had health insurance, paid sick leave and vacation.

In March, she was furloughed, though Disney is continuing to cover her health insurance.

“I have unemployment and a generous family,” said Ms. Clark, explaining how she has managed to continue paying for rent and food.

Many performers are relying on charity. The Actors Fund, a service organization for the arts, has raised and distributed $18 million since the pandemic started for basic living expenses to 14,500 people.

“I’ve been at the Actors Fund for 36 years,” said Barbara S. Davis, the chief operating officer. “Through September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 recession, industry shutdowns. There’s clearly nothing that compares to this.”

Higher-paid television and film actors have more of a cushion, but they, too, have endured disappointments and lost opportunities. Jack Cutmore-Scott and Meaghan Rath, now his wife, had just been cast in a new CBS pilot, “Jury Duty,” when the pandemic shut down filming.

“I’d had my costume fitting and we were about to go and do the table read the following week, but we never made it,” Mr. Cutmore-Scott said. After several postponements, they heard in September that CBS was bailing out altogether.

Many live performers have looked for new ways to pursue their art, turning to video, streaming and other platforms. Carla Gover’s tour of dancing to and playing traditional Appalachian music as well as a folk opera she composed, “Cornbread and Tortillas,” were all canceled. “I had some long dark nights of the soul trying to envision what I could do,” said Ms. Gover, who lives in Lexington, Ky., and has three children.

She started writing weekly emails to all her contacts, sharing videos and offering online classes in flatfoot dancing and clogging. The response was enthusiastic. “I figured out how to use hashtags and now I have a new kind of business,” Ms. Gover said.

But if technology enables some artists to share their work, it doesn’t necessarily help them earn much or even any money.

The violinist Ms. Koh, known for her devotion to promoting new artists and music, donated her time to create the “Alone Together” project, raising donations to commission compositions and then performing them over Instagram from her apartment.

The project was widely praised, but as Ms. Koh said, it doesn’t produce income.

“I am lucky,” Ms. Koh insisted. Unlike many of her friends and colleagues, she managed to hang onto her health insurance thanks to a teaching gig at the New School, and she got a forbearance on her mortgage payments through March. Many engagements have also been rescheduled — if not until 2022.

She ticks off the list of friends and colleagues who have had to move out of their homes or have lost their health insurance, their income and nearly every bit of their work.

“It’s just decimating the field,” she said. “It concerns me when I look at the future.”

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