Gig economy, artists welcome unemployment payments, but face an unknowable future
Heidi Kirchofer and her husband Joel Melendez knew even before Gov. Ned Lamont shut down non-essential businesses that they were in trouble. As circus artists – performers and teachers – their close-up work with students and crowded performance spaces were just not going to cut it in a coronavirus world.
So, they closed everything,
“Zero work and zero income and usually having zero access to unemployment,” Kirchofer said from her home in Harwinton, where instead of juggling circus objects and the difficulties of mid-air acrobatics, she is juggling two sons and figuring out how to keep food on the table.
“Costs are the same. I’m looking at how to save money,” she said. “It’s tough. We’re artists. We already do that.”
Independent artists like Kirchofer have understood the realities of the gig economy since long before the likes of Uber propelled that title into the popular lexicon. Employment for many, many artists has always consisted of stringing together gigs, short-term regular and irregular contracts and all manner of freelance. But it has never had the safety net classic employment has – unemployment benefits.
After much protest from Democrats – including Connecticut’s congressional delegation – the $2.2 trillion economic stabilization plan passed and signed last week does include unemployment benefits for freelance and part-time workers – those are people who file 1099 tax forms. The exact parameters for calculating how much people will receive are still being worked out.
It’s at least a temporary lifeline to a group that often slips through the cracks, but it won’t address long-term uncertainty in a society and political climate that often views the arts as optional.
“Arts and culture are the first thing to get hit,” said Steph Burr, membership and outreach manager of the Northwest Connecticut Arts Council, and a graffiti artist. “They think this is just a luxury, but these are peoples’ jobs.”
Nationally arts and culture represents 4.5% of U.S. gross domestic product and 5.1 million jobs, according to 2017 data from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis provided by Americans for the Arts.
Part of the economy
In Connecticut, arts and culture contribute $9.3 billion to the state economy representing 3.5% of GDP and nearly 59,000 jobs, with more than 39,000 of those jobs directly in about 10,400 arts-related businesses.
“Arts and culture are the first thing to get hit. They think this is just a luxury, but these are peoples’ jobs.”
Steph Burr of the Northwest Connecticut Arts Council.
Americans for the Arts is also providing a dashboard tracking the economic impact of the virus and economic shutdown on the arts. And it is tracking nationwide sentiment that at the moment shows more than two-thirds of artists and organizations believe the impact to the arts on a scale of one-to-five will be a 4 or a 5 – which is severe.
Surveys conducted by some of the state’s regional arts councils showed dramatic impacts already.
The Northwest Council reported 26% of respondents had lost all sources of income with no access to unemployment benefits under traditional rules. Sixty percent were completely out of work. Gig economy, the self-employed and small businesses were hardest hit.
In the New Haven area, there was more than $2 million in lost arts revenue in just the first couple of weeks of the closure. Organizations were unable to serve about 250,000 people.
At the Connecticut Office for Arts and Culture, which is part of the Department of Economic and Community Development, Liz Shapiro, has been looking for ways to funnel additional funds to artists. The federal legislation also provides $150 million to be split evenly between the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.
Sixty percent of the NEA money will go to major arts organizations, with the remaining 40% divided among the states. While Connecticut is not likely to see a huge amount of money – they’re hoping for about $1 million – it will come without the usual NEA strings, meaning the money will not require matching funds, can be used for operating expenses and may be used for relief support.
In the meantime, Shapiro is trying to figure out how to best deploy some existing NEA money that does have those strings. “What we’re looking for right now – how to work with what we have that we can cull out of the budget,” she said.
NEA funds usually go to specific projects and she thinks such efforts as teaching online, subscriptions to Zoom and other explorations of online tools could qualify.
“Artists are scared – and they have every right to be scared because the ecosystem is changing dramatically and there’s always been very few safety nets for those who work in the gig economy,” she said. “We should view this as a time where all of those people who live with a small safety net should have a light shined on their situation now.”
New Haven is the city in the state taking the lead on that, last week unveiling the skeletal structure of an economic development program that includes a standalone arts component. It’s already underway with a relief fund that is a collaboration between the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. It’s called New Haven Creates – modeled on efforts cultural affairs director Adriane Jefferson had seen forming already in places like Seattle and Boston.
The city kicked in $50,000 and the Council $10,000 to begin, but fundraising has increased that total already. Individuals and organizations with average budgets smaller than $500,000 can apply for grants up to $1000. There were more 200 applications almost instantly.
The New Haven Symphony started its own relief fund. From the outside, the symphony may look like a large standard organization with its 259 “employees.” But most of them, including the 65 core musicians, are independent, freelance who are paid for service, which includes performances and rehearsals – all of which are canceled through April.
“It’s just devasting,” said Elaine Carroll, CEO of the symphony. “These are people who live to play. It’s not just a job, it’s an identity. They work so hard to spread joy. To deny them that is just devastating.
“They went from being busy and productive to having nothing to do.”
The Musicians’ Relief Fund is using money from ticket holders who have agreed to forgo a refund as well as donations. As of Monday, the fund was getting close to $20,000. In addition to that, the board authorized $5,300 to give a small payment to the 41 musicians who were scheduled to perform March 24-30.
Michael Singer is one of those musicians – the symphony’s principal timpanist. He holds similar positions with the Palm Beach Opera and the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. Everything is freelance. Everything is cancelled. His wife – principal percussionist with the symphony — is in the same position, save a few piano lessons she’s given online.
“The virus has wiped out our source of income,” he said. The ability to get unemployment is a big relief. But what worries him is the aftereffects – people’s willingness to sit in a crowded audience, or will they even have the money to do that?
“What will be that appetite in November coming into Woolsey for a classical concert?” he asked. “It might be a big game changer for the foreseeable future.”
That’s what’s been on Adriane Jefferson of New Haven’s mind, too: How to restart things and just what will be restarting. “We’re going to come out of this a lot different than we went into it,” she said. “We want to provide some level of thought now.”
Transitioning many artistic endeavors to online is dominating the conversation. But for the symphony, for instance, there are union regulations that don’t always allow that, so those have to be waived. And then there are media that simply can’t make full transitions. Jewelry makers, painters, sculptors, tattoo artists may be able to use the internet for sales and promotion, but not the product itself.
Erik Schmalz is an independent trombonist in Canton who specializes in early music and travels much of the year to perform. All his work is cancelled through April and he’s even had cancellations in July and October. He welcomes the ability to collect unemployment. But he’s not sold on migrating his music online, even for the short term.
“All of us have mixed feelings about doing that,” he said. “Giving it to people for free in their house; the more they get used to it, the more they’ll expect it.”
He points to the kinds of feel-good stories on the news right now — like a couple of kids playing music on the porch for free. “Well somebody had to teach those kids, and we’re all going to have to teach them when this is done,” he said.
Heidi, the circus artist, said online would not work for her either. No way should students be on their own with no safety spotters given the difficult moves they need to learn.
For performing, she said: “I’m not as concerned because a lot is outdoors. But with the economy taking a hit, nobody will have any money to run the events.”
Cathy Malloy, CEO of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, said long term, we may be facing a new normal. “How do we come out of this and think about doing things differently?” she said. “Going forward, arts have to think about how to use their skill sets differently.”
Shapiro of the state arts office was downright optimistic. “I think what we’re going to find when people say what helped to get them through this time it’s going to be turning to our artistic community,” she said. “When we feel stressed, we listen to music.
“I think we could pivot this situation to have a renaissance in the arts.”