Like everyone else I’ve been reading the constant impossible-to-avoid doomsday headlines about tens of thousands of people losing their jobs as a result of the economic downturn. Today I had lunch with someone whose business folded. Last week I walked along West 8th Street in New York’s Greenwich Village which now feels like a vast ghost town—all I could see on this once thriving shopping mecca were vacant stores which seem unlikely to be re-occupied anytime in the near future. Admittedly, the former posh shoe and designer bag emporia there were never places that I frequented (in fact, I bristled when those businesses replaced some of my favorite collectible record shops), but seeing a cascade of empty storefronts is still quite shocking. I’ve heard similar anecdotes from friends in other cities across the country. Clearly something must be done to turn things around.
Earlier this afternoon, the United States Senate passed an economic recovery package which will now need to be reconciled with the significantly different bill passed by the House of Representatives last week. In order to gain consensus, the senate version stripped away much of what was in the original proposal and added in the Coburn Amendment, a text including the following sentence which has caused quite a debate within the arts community:
None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.
Of course, for composers and other people involved in the arts—and obviously also people who work at aquariums, zoos, golf courses, swimming pools, stadiums and even casinos—the institutions which that amendment has deemed a luxury form the very basis of economic sustenance. I don’t know very much about the inner workings of aquariums, zoos, golf courses, swimming pools, stadiums or casinos, but a very large percentage of people I know survive as a direct result of museums, theaters, and art centers, or endeavors that are somehow related to such organizations. And I know from the data compiled in Taking Note that most composers across the United States eke out a living by juggling a wide variety of activities, many of which involve arts organizations. Funnily enough, individual artists, as well as most of the folks who work in the arts sector, work longer hours and earn salaries that are considerably smaller than those of people employed in industries not perceived as “luxury” by folks outside the so-called arts community.
But what happens if and when many of these people also lose their jobs as a result of these institutions’ inability to stay afloat? Their salaries also pay for food, rent, taxes, and even items sold in stores like the ones that used to be on West 8th Street, meaning that they too form an integral part of the economic food-chain.
All too many people continue to think that arts-related jobs are somehow not “real work.” In some ways we have ourselves to blame for this. Though I’m not so sure it’s always completely conscious, we continue to project an image of the arts that is glamorous and elitist and therefore seems far removed from the lives of so-called ordinary people. Music and the other arts are indeed extraordinary. But, of course, there’s also no such thing as ordinary people. We are all extraordinary, which is why we are capable of creating and appreciating art, but somehow that’s not the message we put forward when we propagandize for great works made by great people. The fact of the matter is that most work is created, performed, administered, and appreciated by people who are pretty much the same as the folks who are not currently creating, performing, administering, or appreciating it. And, at the moment, most of us are just as broke.
A visit here is a good place to begin, but what else can we do to make our voices heard?