During the past year of a global pandemic, people have turned to books, music, television and film for solace, distraction, entertainment and shared experiences even while apart. Yet the arts sector has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19. 

Tina Lilly is executive director of the Georgia Council for the Arts, a state agency that promotes, funds and advises the arts industry.

Georgia’s budget has provided some funding for our arts organizations and adapted grant applications and needs due to these unforeseen circumstances. However, both the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan from the federal government have designated a different, larger opportunity for much-needed funding to support the recovery of the arts sector. Considering the size of the arts industry, the number of arts jobs that have been lost, and the importance of the arts to the overall economy in the state, it is clear why this additional recovery funding will be vital. The arts industry is not exclusively about entertainment. It is about jobs, economic development, and thriving communities in Georgia.

The nonprofit arts industry in Georgia is made up of more than 2,800 organizations that support over 30,000 jobs with an annual economic impact of over $2 billion dollars. Americans for the Arts reports that Georgia’s arts sector is 4.3% of the state’s gross domestic product, which is roughly the size of the construction industry. 

Further, the nonprofit arts industry is part of a robust ecosystem of creative workers that move between sectors and drive innovation in our state. The creative industries bring together the not-for-profit sector with the for-profit creative sector such as film, digital entertainment, publishing and design. The creative industries in Georgia represent nearly 200,000 jobs, $37 billion in annual revenue, and an annual economic impact of $62.5 billion.

Additionally, the arts industry is inextricably bound to other economic drivers, such as tourism, which generated $39.14 billion in direct spending in 2019, and film, which boasted a $2.9 billion in direct spending in 2019, while also anchoring the lively, exciting communities that attract businesses and skilled workers. 

The arts industry also provides a tremendous number of unseen services in the state that make our communities better places and improve the quality of life for all Georgians. For instance, teaching artists use the arts to explain science and math concepts to students. Art therapists work with children in homeless shelters and veterans with PTSD across the state to help them explore and address traumatic experiences. Other artists work with communities on murals and beautification projects that create pride in neighborhoods. These are the types of projects funded by Georgia Council for the Arts through our grants program.

Americans for the Arts reports that 59% of performance venues in the country remain closed. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate in 2020 was 7.8%. Performing artists, though, had some of the highest unemployment rates of any sector during COVID: actors (40.2%), dancers (45.6%) and musicians (27%). The Brookings Institution estimated that approximately 86,244 arts industry workers had lost their jobs in Georgia as of July 2020 – a number that is roughly the population of Buckhead in Atlanta.

While artists and arts administrators are hurt by shuttered arts organizations, the closings are also problematic for nearby restaurants, shops and businesses that rely on the people brought in by performances, concerts, exhibits and festivals.

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, funded through the American Rescue Plan (ARP), will provide $16 billion to theaters and performance venues across the country, the majority of which remain closed a year into the pandemic. ARP also provided $135 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, which will distribute 60% directly to arts organizations, and 40% will be split between state and regional arts organizations to grant to organizations in their territories. These funds, like the CARES Act funds, are intended to pay the most basic expenses for these organizations to preserve jobs and keep the organizations open: salaries and rent/mortgage expenses.

The arts industry is the linchpin to moving our economy forward and getting people to travel for concerts, visit our small cities for unique festivals, and support neighborhood restaurants and shops. The federal funds will help this industry do what all small businesses want to do: retain jobs, keep their venues open, and go back to what they do best – finding creative ways to serve their communities.

Tina Lilly is executive director of the Georgia Council for the Arts, a state agency that promotes, funds and advises the arts industry.