The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arts workers are increasingly stepping onto the political stage

Members of the creative sector are building coalitions, raising money and even running for office to press for their causes

Christian Amato, a onetime arts worker, is running for the New York State Senate in a district covering parts of the Bronx and Westchester County. (George Espinal/Amato for N.Y.)

NEW YORK — Christian Amato, a 34-year-old Bronx Democrat who ran a theater company in Greenwich Village before switching to politics, was outlining his positions on the arts and other matters at a sidewalk cafe the other day when his phone rang.

“This might be an important endorsement,” he said, excitedly. And it was. Local 1, the theatrical stagehands union, was calling to support his campaign for a state Senate seat representing parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, the latest development in a movement to gain political ground for America’s more than 5 million arts workers.

“That’s fantastic. It means a lot to me,” Amato said into the phone, between bites of avocado toast. “Listen, I’m on your side. I’m with you in this fight. … I’ll take the logo — and do you need my address? Do you guys do a check with the endorsement?”

Amato’s campaign, pitting him against two rivals on primary Election Day, Aug. 23, lays out a palette of issues, including women’s rights, education, housing and climate change. But it’s his articulation of a sophisticated platform for arts and culture that makes his candidacy a true rarity. His website points out that the creative economy — which also includes institutions and industries such as museums, fashion and publishing — accounts for 7 percent of the state’s financial activity and, before the pandemic, generated 484,000 jobs and $120 billion annually.

“As the only candidate running statewide with a real arts and culture platform, these types of endorsements are really important to me,” said Amato, whose résumé includes several years at Samuel French, the venerable play publishing and licensing house. “The political process is so much like putting on a show — and I am in the longest, most arduous audition I could ever be a part of.”

Increasingly, those who make their living in the arts are realizing how much they need allies in government to flourish. And now, they’re building coalitions and raising money to step up their political game. A few with arts backgrounds, like Amato, are running for office. Others in artistic endeavors are organizing, like the Music Workers Alliance and American Circus Alliance, to push for greater recognition and advocate for those in their fields. Still others, such as the two-year-old National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA, composed of more than 3,000 music and comedy venues, festivals and promoters in all 50 states, are going further. They are establishing political action committees to support candidates who share their values.

“From the beginning we held the mantra ‘First we survive, then we thrive,’” Audrey Fix Schaefer, NIVA’s communications director, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Now that we are an established trade association, we intend to stay connected to mechanisms to advocate for our members, so we’re establishing a PAC to assist candidates that support our mission.”

The creative sector’s victories in securing government aid during the shutdown confirmed for arts groups the need to assert themselves more aggressively, and not merely from the safe space of a stage or studio. The successful campaign led by NIVA for 2020′s landmark Save Our Stages Act, a federal aid bill sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), resulted in a massive one-time federal rescue package: the $16 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. The money has gone to clubs, playhouses, productions and amphitheaters of all sizes across the country.

“What’s important and exciting to notice is that the new advocacy is being done by the arts workers themselves,” said Carson Elrod, who in 2020 organized with three other actors and writers the #BeAnArtsHero campaign to raise awareness of the desperate straits for artists and those in ancillary fields. “The National Independent Venue Association didn’t wait for some other organization to come to save them, because nobody was coming to save them. So they assembled themselves very quickly. And, as I like to say, they ran a $16 billion football called ‘Save Our Stages’ into the end zone in less than one year. So, if there is any demonstration of just how powerful grass-roots organizing can be, it is ‘Save Our Stages.’”

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Jeffrey Omura, a New York-based actor who appeared this year in Arena Stage’s world premiere of Craig Lucas’s “Change Agent,” was so energized by participating in a successful grass-roots “Fair Wage on Stage” campaign that he ran last year for the New York City Council from the Upper West Side. Omura lost the race, but not his activist impulse: He’s in the early phases of creating a PAC to back office seekers with positive arts agendas at every government level.

“Every industry has some kind of political action committee or union interviewing candidates, asking them how those candidates are going to be the best advocates for their industry,” Omura said. “While I didn’t win, the big takeaway was, how do we build that infrastructure for the arts? The lobbyists, the PACs: How do we make sure officeholders are advocating for us every day?”

Groups such as the D.C.-based Americans for the Arts have lobbying arms, but activists say that a much more muscular and visible advocacy system must be built. “The next step is to get real serious about it, and to be incredibly well organized and to wield that power productively,” said Jenny Grace Makholm, another of the #BeAnArtsHero founders. “So, to our minds, that means forming an organization similar to the ACLU, the NRA, the NAACP, so that when you hear the name on Capitol Hill, you know exactly who we are.”

Political aspirants like Amato are seeking even more direct impact. His policy rollout in his District 34 race calls for, among other things, increasing state funds for arts education; funding a permanent arts worker program, along the lines of the Depression-era WPA; expanding public art initiatives; and creating a $150 million coronavirus relief fund “for the most damaged parts of the cultural sector, including a $10 million fund to support arts workers.”

Growing up in the Bronx, the son of Italian immigrants who ran a dry cleaner on Arthur Avenue, Amato said he was always encouraged to pursue what he loved. “I made this piece of art and my dad was like, ‘We gotta get him into art classes,’” he recalled. “And so my mom was like, ‘Okay,’ and found the Pelham Art Center, which is still in my district. So I love knocking on doors in Pelham and saying, ‘I have a long history with Pelham: I took art classes for years here.’ You can really believe in what you’re saying.”

Amato’s segue to a political life began with former president Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action program, which offered fellowships and training in grass-roots activism. It eventually led to a position as chief of staff to state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who is now running in a primary for Congress against incumbent Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.). “He has the people skills and he has the smarts and the creativity,” said Bruce Lazarus, a theater producer and lawyer who was Amato’s boss at Samuel French.

Zack Bissell, a New York actor, has been a friend of Amato’s since their college days at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, where Amato was voted the student association’s vice president of the arts — a post responsible for allocating the college’s $12.5 million arts budget. Campaigning door-to-door with his pal this summer, Bissell is reminded of the through story in Amato’s trajectory.

“It’s sort of another variation on a theme,” Bissell said, recalling how Amato put together a musical production in Plattsburgh over a summer break, with the two of them in leading roles. “When Christian wants to do something, he will find out how to do that. The entire school came back to this really amazing production of ‘Hair.’ ”