Arts sector shrank twice as fast as US economy during pandemic, NEA says

For nearly a year after the first March 2020 closures in the United States, economic productivity across the arts sector has stalled as closures have affected employment and revenues at museums, theaters and arts spaces nationwide. The impact of COVID-19 on the arts is undeniable, but new data released last week by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) quantifies the extent of the damage: between 2019 and 2020, the arts economy shrank nearly twice the rate of the US economy as a whole.

The arts represent a large and diverse sector of local, institutional, and national organizations, and the majority of artists working in the United States are either self-employed or independent contractors. The NEA reports that arts and culture output fell 6.4% after adjusting for inflation, compared to a 3.4% drop for the economy as a whole. The value added of independent artists, writers and performers fell by 20.6% and, according to NEA analysis, the unemployment rate in the arts and culture industries fell from 3.7% in 2019 to 10.3% in 2020.

The NEA reports that while the arts and culture industries have regained ground in 2021, they have yet to return to 2019 levels of income and activity. Several independent arts and culture spaces that initially closed in 2020 have never reopened after suffering irretrievable economic losses, and others have survived with the support of government grants and community aid.

With theaters and performance venues closed for nearly a year, the film and performing arts industries have been, predictably, among the hardest hit. The film industry lost an estimated 136,000 workers when COVID-19 halted all production, and while many studios have since resumed in-person work, many safety protocols have persisted.

Government contributions to arts and culture have remained stable during the pandemic. Despite reduced output, arts and culture managed to add $876.7 billion to national GDP in 2020, up from $919.7 billion in 2019. The results also highlight that performing arts revenue in the third quarter doubled from $834 million in 2020 to $1.7 billion in 2021, but the amount is lower than the $12.7 billion earned in 2019.

“While arts and culture industries and workers nationwide have suffered heavy losses, the sector continues to play an outsized role in the U.S. economy – as new data demonstrates,” the agency said. NEA President Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson in a statement.

Rosario Jackson points to an interesting trend within the industry: This summer of self-isolation and the start of remote working has catalyzed a massive shift to digital arts programming. Gallery openings and live performances, once strictly personal affairs, were accessible from the comfort of one’s home, and this proliferation of digital media engagement increased economic value by 14.3% between 2019 and 2020, employing 12,000 people.

The Arts and Culture Production Satellite Account (ACPSA) has compiled fact sheets illustrating the value the arts and culture sector added to local economies in all 50 states in 2020. In New York alone, the arts contributed $126.7 billion, or 7.3% of the state’s overall economic value, and independent artists contributed about $5 million in total. While the toll of COVID-19 on the creative economy has been significant, for the NEA, sustained value addition is a clear indicator of progress and a reason to advocate for increased support for the creative sector.

“NEA is committed to participating as a key partner in reviving this sector, recognizing not only its economic value, but also the ability of the arts to transform the lives of individuals and communities in other ways, by contributing to health and well-being and overall resilience,” added Rosario Jackson.

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