Absent intervention from Congress, the answer may well be yes. But the gravity of the situation should give the political camp that usually resists government support for arts organizations — conservatives — good reason to help revive them.
First, conservatives need to understand why government aid is necessary. Even as vaccines and treatments for covid-19 emerge, indoor performing venues may have to keep taking expensive safety measures against the coronavirus for months, even years. Of these, the most challenging is social distancing. Unlike movie theaters, which have low fixed costs, live venues bear large upfront expenses, including performers, production crews and ushers. If these venues — from small clubs and theaters to huge concert halls — are forced to hold seating way below capacity, they simply will not be able to charge enough for tickets to be able to continue to operate.
Ninety percent of the member organizations of the National Independent Venue Association polled in a recent survey warned that, without government aid, they will close permanently in a few months. The disastrous impact would ripple across the economy: Before the coronavirus struck, the performing arts and their associated industries collectively employed some 5 million Americans and accounted for $900 billion in economic activity — 4.5 percent of the gross domestic product.
Private-sector advocates have mobilized to help performing artists. But our efforts will fall short without government support — which necessarily means the federal government, because state and local governments upended by the pandemic are in no position to offer much aid. Enter the Save Our Stages Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in July, which would provide $10 billion in aid over six months for live performance venues devastated by covid-19.
Unfortunately, this legislation has gone nowhere. The gridlock in the Republican-controlled Senate is not surprising: Conservatives concerned about the nation’s finances have long resisted public funding for the arts.
But there is plenty in the Save Our Stages Act for conservatives to like. First, it’s highly targeted. Grants would be administered through the Small Business Administration to qualifying organizations with up to 500 employees. The largest organizations with the greatest fundraising prowess — such as the Met — wouldn’t get taxpayer subsidies.
Second, government investment in the arts has positive downstream economic effects. A study by the Chicago Loop Alliance concluded that every $1 spent on arts tickets generated $12 in area economic activity, including spending at restaurants, hotels and retailers. Similarly, Americans for the Arts found that in 2015 federal, state and local governments generated more than $27 billion in revenue from arts allocations of roughly $5 billion. These returns dwarf the 1.5x fiscal multiplier the Obama administration estimated in its 2009 stimulus bill.
While it will take time for these numbers to return to pre-covid norms, the underlying economic dynamic should entice conservatives. Moreover, to the degree that these venues tend to be in urban cores — and have been instrumental in the urban revitalization that conservatives have championed for decades, notably in Rudolph W. Giuliani’s New York when he was mayor — saving them may help revive cities hollowed out by the coronavirus and recent civil unrest.
One way to assuage fiscal conservatives’ concerns might be to structure federal funding as a match for ticket sales at qualifying venues. The amount could be set to cover the empty seats for each performance mandated by safety regulations. Matching is a time-honored tool of philanthropy, and it encourages venues to fill as many seats as possible on their own before government aid kicks in. It also minimizes risk: If arts patrons don’t step up and buy tickets, then there’s no match, and the government spends nothing.
To be sure, the Save Our Stages Act is no panacea — $10 billion won’t be enough to carry all eligible performing arts institutions until fully attended indoor performances are safe again. Sadly, some organizations will fold. But this legislation could rescue many from permanent closure and inspire additional commitments — maybe even for larger venues — from the private sector. Plus, Washington would be paying for people to work instead of paying them not to work — something conservatives should applaud.
Arts audiences are passionate and, especially in turbulent times, hunger for the fulfillment that a transcendent performance can bring. Even skeptics of government funding for the arts should support making those experiences possible again. As no less a conservative than Winston Churchill once said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them.”