Ellis Greer is a theatrical costume artist who was all set to start work at the Utah Shakespeare Festival when she learned the summer season would be “abbreviated,” according to a call she says she received two weeks ago from the artistic director. While the festival is still scheduled to continue, the show she’d expected to work on was canceled. So, her contract was canceled as well.
“Working here is a sign of excellence in my profession,” Greer wrote in an email to NPR about her summer job. “Lots of people in all aspects of theater-making return again and again to the Festival. In many ways it feels like a family. Now this summer, most technical theater artists who were going to work at the Festival will have neither a source of income that we planned on nor a valued team to work with.”
Greer is among the millions of artists and creative workers whose economic security has become utterly derailed by COVID-19. The advocacy group Americans for the Arts has spent much of the past month collecting data on how artists like her are faring; in a new study of more than 10,000 working artists and creatives, it finds that nearly two-thirds of artists report having become unemployed since the start of the pandemic. Perhaps they’re improv teachers, wedding photographers or lighting designers; the survey, which is ongoing, says 95 percent of them have experienced income loss as a result of COVID-19, with an average decline in estimated income for the year amounting to $24,000.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts contribute more than $760 billion annually to the US economy. That’s more than sectors such as agriculture or transportation. But only $250 million was set aside to support the arts in the congressional emergency aid bill passed last March. Even so, the allocation drew the ire of some politicians, including Nikki Haley, who tweeted, “How many more people could’ve been helped with this money?” (Haley, a Republican, has served as Ambassador to the U.N. and governor of South Carolina; the arts business in her home state annually supported 115,000 jobs and generated nearly $300 million in tax revenue, according to the South Carolina Arts Commission.)
“Even as the creative backbone of the United States is breaking financially, creative workers stand ready to be part of the recovery — often whether they’ll end up being paid to deploy their creativity or not. However, they do indeed need to be paid,” said Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts in a statement.
Greer does not expect to get paid for her expertise in the arts anytime soon. “Because the whole point of theater is to come together for shared storytelling, I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back to work,” she told NPR. “But I predict it won’t be before we have herd immunity or a vaccine.” For now, she intends to finish her graduate thesis while living at home with her parents in Tennessee. Sometime, eventually, she hopes to pursue her dream of working in a costume shop in New York City, currently a hotbed of coronavirus infections.