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Putting an End to the Pandemic Means Putting Artists Back to Work

5 minute read

Alexander is a poet, scholar and the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of arts, culture, and humanities.

Startling new visions and potent interactions blossom when artists live and work in close proximity to innovative arts organizations, schools, and cultural institutions, and daily disciplines of craft are often enriched by the vast multiplicity of human experiences and perspectives offered by our country’s great cities. As Walt Whitman—a New Yorker as well as one of our country’s legendary poets—wrote in “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Whitman’s words give voice to our cities and the artists who invigorate them.

But our artists and our cities—the vibrant, dynamic metropolises many of our artists call home—have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Data have confirmed dizzying mass unemployment numbers for those who work in creative industries, and headlines continue to proclaim mass exoduses from dense urban areas. The arts and culture sector in New York State alone, which typically generates $120 billion a year and supports nearly half a million jobs, was obliterated by the unchecked arrival of COVID-19.

The speed with which this devastation occurred made the transformations to our cities and our arts communities even more disorienting. In what’s been the most precipitous decline of any economic sector, New York State saw half of all performing arts jobs disappear—a rate that climbs to nearly 70 percent when focused on New York City alone.

As a lifelong acolyte of cities’ rich liveliness, and a devoted resident of New York City, I have thought deeply about how to rectify these grim numbers, and the individual artists they represent—how to help restore our cities from the turbulence of the past year with artists and their work centered in our post-pandemic recovery efforts. Our expansive gratitude knows no bounds for the ingenuity, compassion, and unflagging determination of many workers—health care professionals and scientists foremost among them—that helped us survive the pandemic. Yet crisis forges clarity, and what the crisis of COVID-19 revealed was this: it is artists who sustained us through the pandemic. It is artists who will tell the stories of who we are and what we have lived through. And artists, crucially, are workers, too.

Just last week, the Mellon Foundation announced details for Creatives Rebuild New York (CRNY), a three-year, $125 million initiative to provide thousands of artists, who drive our economy as some of our most dedicated workers, the income and stability they need as we collectively emerge from the pandemic. The two components of this statewide initiative will consist of an employment program that will provide 300 artists with full time employment, benefits and time designated for pursuit of their creative work for two years, and a no-strings-attached guaranteed income program providing monthly income payments to up to 2,400 artists experiencing financial need.

Given New York’s high cost of living and both the number and the vulnerability of labor markets in which artists typically work—including the restaurant industry, which was also decimated by the pandemic—our hope is that CRNY will help provide the time and the financial stability artists need to continue their creative practices as the state reopens and rebuilds. And we are delighted that the Ford Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) share this hope and have joined us in supporting this urgent initiative.

To be clear, while substantial, CRNY is not Mellon’s only effort to support artists in our current moment. We deployed nearly $200 million in emergency grantmaking to meet the needs of grantees across programs in 2020, and we will deploy an additional emergency $200 million in 2021. We are honored to serve as a primary funder of the $38.5 million LA Arts Recovery Fund, in formal acknowledgment of the intrinsic role artists and cultural organizations play in the brilliant multiculturalism of Los Angeles. And I personally was honored to serve on Governor Cuomo’s Reimagine New York Commission in 2020, which is where the idea for Creatives Rebuild New York began its development.

The fundamental point that drove that idea—and that will animate CRNY in the three years to come—is that making art is work. Artists are a workforce, and they ought to be recognized as such. And while the legacies of other workers can and do shape our lives, artists profoundly and uniquely influence how we experience and envision the world around us through the work they undertake.

In New York City, Harriet Tubman stands tall in Harlem—she is the artist Alison Saar’s powerful 21st-century sculpture; over in Madison Square Park last spring, the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko honored the stories of 12 refugees with video projections on a 19th-century statue; down near Wall Street, the African Burial Ground memorializes the free and enslaved Black New Yorkers once laid to rest in Lower Manhattan; last summer, across the East River in Socrates Sculpture Park, an ephemeral, multitiered structure by the artist Jeffrey Gibson evoked the earth mounds of the Indigenous Mississippian people.

In Los Angeles, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers still reach nearly 100 feet into the sky, 100 years after he first began building his improbable vision. Judith Baca’s vivid murals grace a freeway underpass and a flood control channel, where they convey vital California stories like those of Dust Bowl migrants, the Zoot Suit Riots, and the first Olympic women’s marathon. Augmented reality monuments, created by five remarkable artists in partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the technology company Snap, reveal powerful histories of the city accessible to anyone with a smartphone.

Both cities—both ravaged by COVID-19, both resilient in its aftermath—will carry their glorious multitudes into our post-pandemic future. Their artists are our scouts and chroniclers: hard at work, transcending the challenges we still face, pushing the boundaries of how we see and understand one another and our ever-changing world.

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