In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the arts and entertainment world has taken a big hit. With restrictions on group gatherings and social distancing recommendations, performances have been canceled, institutions and venues have closed, and artists have been left without work and source of income.
I had a successful business providing entertainment to the public, private, and corporate sectors in addition to producing events and consulting. All of this came to a screeching halt on March 17. I named it Dark Tuesday.
The calls started coming on March 11, addressing pending dates and possible rescheduling. March 12 was deadly, accompanied by sudden cancellations and people requesting refunds on deposits. I started seeing the writing on the wall and thinking, this is not going to get better. On March 16, word of cancellation from my regular performance residencies came in. By March 17, my full calendar had vanished, with no business in sight until after September.
My story is the story of many others in the industry, some with lesser or broader consequences. While those in other industries who are working from home will still be receiving a check, we don’t have that same luxury. Considered casual entertainment, freelancers, we are merely a line item on a business’ profit and loss sheet, the first item to be eliminated during a budget reduction.
Yet, we are the heroes of this city when it comes promoting our culture to the rest of the world. We are the pulse, the beat that everyone looks for. We are the ones who risk stability and conformity in order to pursue cultural growth, the innovators that set the path for what a culture becomes, the voice of the people in one form or another. You would think that a city that thrives on the promotion of arts and culture would value and protect their assets – the artists themselves.
Most musicians are encountering an uphill battle when addressing available assistance or trying to obtain relief funds. Most, if not all of our work, is considered contract labor. Though some of us have turned our performances into professional work, we are considered freelance workers. The Texas Workforce Commission sees us as contract labor. Under their current guidelines we don’t qualify for unemployment insurance.
Several cities and independent organizations across the United States have implemented mechanisms to provide aid to their cultural ambassadors. Boston established a relief fund, The Recording Academy, through MusiCares, established the COVID-19 Relief Fund, and the Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation set up an emergency grant.
In San Antonio, Luminaria and the Department of Arts and Culture on Wednesday announced the Corona Arts Relief Fund, which will provide limited financial support to individual artists. Artists are able to apply for up to $600 through April 14. I want to give a heartfelt thank you to Debbie Racca-Sittre for taking the lead on such a sensitive issue. Let’s hope the City follows with additional programs that can assist with medical, rent, and other financial burdens. This crisis is not going away anytime soon.
What makes matters worse is that we are not alone in this struggle. Let us not forget our fellow workers in the hospitality business such as waiters, busboys, bartenders, cooks, hosts, and the list goes on. All together we have arduously contributed to a robust industry supporting tourism, until now.
Hotel Occupancy Tax funds given to the Department of Arts and Culture (which in turn are mostly divided amongst organizations for operational support) are based on taxes paid by heads in beds, which is almost at zero right now. What will organizations do about it during the time being? With limited local corporate support, reserves that do not exist, and a sense of co-dependency on funds received from the Department of Arts and Culture, most organizations will cease to exist, thus decimating what is known as a thriving cultural city.
I am not asking for handouts, but for the development of a system that treats all of our artistic community with fairness and consideration, not superficially, but with integrity, protecting all of the assets that form the core of what is called the arts and cultural community of San Antonio.
I am compelled to include a simple but powerful quote from a friend who will remain nameless: “If we love music when things are good, we need to find ways to protect it when things are bad.”
Please don’t say “we’re working on it” or “there’s a committee addressing the issue.” If I had a penny for every time I heard this, I would be the one aiding my friends in need. Actions speak louder than words. Remember, the people behind the arts and cultures of this city are vital to its economy.
Will San Antonio consider taking care of its cultural ambassadors, protecting the front line that makes the world want to come back to our city for more? It’s yet to be seen.