State lawmakers joined arts leaders today, March 26, in support of setting aside $1 million in Covid-19 recovery funds for local artists and arts organizations devastated by the pandemic.
“ReStart the Arts” in Westchester and Rockland counties will be led by the Affiliate Committee of ArtsWestchester, a group of arts leaders who serve as board members for what is the largest nonprofit arts council in New York state.
“Our arts programs, which are vital economic stimulators, have been dormant for more than a year, operating virtually, and now require an enormous effort to restore, revive and reopen,” said Laura deBuys, CEO of The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, one of more than 150 arts organizations that could be given a shot in the arm by the campaign.
Any funds allocated by state lawmakers would be distributed by ArtsWestchester through a call for proposals focused on an organization’s needs to restart its in-person programs.
“The arts in Westchester pre-Covid produced a $172 million economic impact, in which 5,200 jobs were actualized,” said ArtsWestchester CEO Janet Langsam, citing the 2017 “ “Far from being a handout, the arts in Westchester return $25 million in taxes to state and local governments annually.”
Added Waddell Stillman, president and CEO of Historic Hudson Valley, “In addition to the economic impact, the arts also have the power to educate and to heal. The pandemic has taken a toll on our residents’ mental health, particularly our children, seniors and those living in isolated circumstances. Through the wealth of virtual programming created in the past year, cultural groups and teaching artists have kept populations engaged and provided an outlet during challenging times.”
That engagement has come at a great cost to the artists themselves. A 2020 survey completed by ArtsWestchester found that 87% of responding arts groups reported that they were not faring well through the pandemic and two-thirds of local artists were unemployed. The national creative worker unemployment rate is estimated at 63%.
“The pandemic has put Westchester arts on life support. We need to pump state money into Westchester arts so they continue to inspire and drive the economy of our community,” said Assemblyman Thomas J. Abinanti.
Dave Steck, founder and executive director of the Yonkers-based YoFi Fest added, “Right now there is a critical need for assistance, specifically for Westchester and Rockland counties arts communities, which represent one of the state’s most artistically vibrant areas outside of New York City. Westchester and Rockland’s economy cannot recover unless we restart the arts.”
While the Affiliate Committee acknowledged that federal PPP and Shuttered Venue funding will help address payroll, leases and utility costs, the funding won’t revitalize the cultural sector programmatically.
As Genia Flammia, board president of Youth Theater Interactions in Yonkers, noted: “Organizations need to reconfigure and rebuild spaces, rewrite curricula, reconnect with audiences and artists and develop new content and presentation models that respond both to social distancing and social justice.”
Eligibility for “Restart the Arts” would be open to organizations and artists who operated in Westchester or Rockland counties prior to March 1, 2020, and who have received ArtsWestchester funding over the past five years. Applications will assess need, viability/sustainability and previous disaster funding received.
Judging from the initial response, it appears the state Legislature understands the psychological and economic importance of the arts to municipalities.
“I strongly support ArtsWestchester’s ‘ReStart the Arts’ initiative and am fighting to see that it is funded,” said state Sen. Pete Harckham. “Investments in the arts have an enormous economic multiplying effect, creating jobs and lifting communities.”
“I recognize the singular importance of the arts industry to New York from both a cultural and economic perspective,” said state Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick. “The arts are central to the identity of Westchester and Rockland counties and their impact is impossible to measure. ‘ReStart The Arts’ has my full support in the upcoming budget cycle. It is so critical that we get artists and performers back to work and revitalize theaters, museums and galleries.”