The Pandemic Is a Disaster for Artists

Connecting the Dots – #YesThisIsAnArtsStory Repost from The RAND blog

James V. MarroneSusan A. ResetarDaniel Schwam | 4 August 2020

As COVID-19 cases grow nationwide and permanent layoffs continue to rise, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine the United States returning to “normalcy” anytime soon. Students may return to school in the fall. Restaurants and gyms may resume normal hours and dining services. But the arts, as we know them, are likely to be shut down for the foreseeable future.

The structure of the arts and cultural industry leaves working artists and performers particularly vulnerable during catastrophes. As of May 4, an ongoing survey conducted by Americans for the Arts showed that two thirds of artists are having trouble sourcing materials. It also appears virtually certain that arts venues will reopen later than other businesses because social distancing is difficult both for audiences and for performers. As one benchmark, Broadway theaters do not plan to reopen until at least January 2021, and music venues that have tried to reopen have run into pushback.

The upshot is that the vast majority of artists have likely lost some or all of their income, not to mention losing the institutions on which they depend to earn their living. And there is no clear path back to pre-pandemic levels of employment. To understand how artists are likely to fare during the pandemic, we looked at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Current Population Survey (CPS) and the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. (For more details about how we analyzed the CPS, our Stata code can be found at GitHub.)

How Many Artists Are Out of Work?

We compared employment levels for artists and non-artists. We adopted the NEA’s definition of who counts as an artist (PDF). We also included librarians and archivists because libraries are included in the federal framework (PDF) for arts disaster relief. The various types of artists were grouped into three broader categories: performing artists (dancers, choreographers, actors, directors, musicians, singers, DJs, and other performers), non-performing artists (visual artists, photographers, designers, and writers), and others (architects, librarians, and archivists). We also analyzed food services and retail/wholesale, which are two of the most common alternative sources of income for artists.[1]

As Figure 1 shows, artists are being hit with a double whammy of unemployment. As of May, workers in arts occupations, food services, and retail are all more likely to be unemployed than those in other occupations.[2] This means artists are more likely than others to have lost their main source of income—even if that source was not art-related.

Figure 1: Unemployment Rates in Arts and Artist-Heavy Occupations, January 2020 versus May 2020

A chart that shows the unemployment rates in arts and artist-heavy occupations. Unemployment increased drastically in these occupations between January and May, 2020.

Source: Analysis of January 2020 CPS data