Coronavirus: The arts in Philly will need plenty of relief funding to survive

 Rob Buscher (left on first row) seated with members of Calaca Flaca,Dia, the artist committee that organizes de Los Muertos altar in Fleisher's Sanctuary, the largest public event held annually at the nonprofit community art school. (Courtesy: Rob Buscher/ Photo credit: Gustavo Gonzales)

Rob Buscher (left on first row) seated with members of Calaca Flaca,Dia, the artist committee that organizes de Los Muertos altar in Fleisher's Sanctuary, the largest public event held annually at the nonprofit community art school. (Courtesy: Rob Buscher/ Photo credit: Gustavo Gonzales)

Every industry is suffering due to stay-at-home orders caused by the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 10,000 people nationwide, 150 individuals in Pennsylvania and 45 people in Philadelphia.

In the news media, both locally and nationally, a good chunk of the coverage has focused on the disease’s impact on restaurant and retail workers. Many of these individuals are considered essential during this pandemic. They’re also low-wage workers, who are less likely to have adequate health care or paid time off. But there is another class of workers, whose circumstances are nearly identical, that the news media has yet to thoroughly examine.

I’m speaking of creative professionals – such as visual artists, musicians, actors, and filmmakers – the majority of whom are freelance or contract workers. Even before this pandemic began, the typical life of an artist provided little stability. Today, these workers are particularly vulnerable.

A few local institutions, such as the Asian Arts Initiative, have pledged to fully retain their staff during the pandemic. But most art and culture institutions in Philadelphia simply can’t afford to compensate their workers if they’re unable to generate revenue. And it isn’t just artists who are being impacted by these circumstances. The entire arts ecosystem is suffering.

Three weeks ago, I was the Programs Director at Fleisher Art Memorial, one of the country’s oldest nonprofit community art schools. Between the youth and adult classes, Fleisher each year employs over 100 teaching artists, who teach upwards of 10,000 students.

Prior to the lockdown, I was preparing to start our spring term of visual arts classes, while simultaneously planning our Summer and Fall terms. The many plans I had hoped to implement under my tenure, which began in February of 2019, are in limbo. I’m now counted among the more than 10 million Americans who, in the last few weeks, have been laid-off.

I’m deeply disappointed by this sudden and unexpected transition. But I also know that I will be okay. I will miss the stability of a regular paycheck. However, being nimble in times of economic hardship is nothing new to me: I entered the workforce immediately after the Recession of 2008 and went on to spend eight years eking out a living in the gig economy.

Today, as I scroll through my Facebook feed, I see that I am not alone. Hundreds of my artist friends are financially impacted by cancelled shows, concerts, and classes. Tough times lay ahead for many of us independent artists. And yet, I remain optimistic.

Optimism aside, it’s not fair that so many artists live without a social safety net, such as universal health care. This moment proves to me that it’s necessary for the creative community to organize and demand the kinds of basic protections readily available to other workers.

I’m worried about the thousands of individuals who serve in the roles of facilities staff, visitor services, and program administrators. When institutions close these jobs are essentially made obsolete, especially since they can’t be performed remotely. For these workers, mass layoffs (or at least furloughs) could be impending, if they haven’t already occurred. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is closed until June 30th, has cut salaries but, so far, hasn’t begun layoffs.

I also have serious concerns about the long-term sustainability for arts and culture organizations that rely on ticket sales. Even if officials lift the lockdown this week, how many people will feel comfortable at a concert venue like Union Transfer, Franklin Music Hall, and the Fillmore, where everyone is crowded into a non-seated area? Isn’t there the looming threat of a secondary wave of infections?

And speaking of audiences: how many older adults, who I believe represent the primary generation of arts patrons, are dying from the disease? Can our arts ecosystem exist without them?

Springtime film festivals have also been cancelled, including the Philadelphia Women’s Film Festival, Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival, the Philadelphia Film Society’s Spring Showcase, and the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival’s ‘Asian Chef Experience.’ This could be the final nail in the coffin for the few remaining independent theaters who rely on rental income from the film festivals and other private events.

Once the initial crisis subsides, our local philanthropic community needs to partner with the city and state officials to address the long-term needs of our arts and cultural institutions, and the creative professionals they employ. If this doesn’t happen, the city’s creative outputs will be sparse in the years to come.

To me, art makes life worth living. And we are living in a time when our society needs art the most. After all, those of us who are lucky enough to be safely quarantined at home know just how important a good book, a compelling television show, or engrossing album can be for maintaining our happiness, if not our sanity.

Rob Buscher is a filmmaker, freelance writer, arts administrator and current Board Chair of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival. 

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