The House of Representatives passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan March 10, clearing it through Congress; President Joe Biden is expected to sign it into law March 12. [UPDATE: President Biden signed the bill a day early on March 11, ahead of his first primetime address.] In addition to $1,400 stimulus checks to eligible Americans, unemployment benefits, and vaccination efforts, the bill’s myriad programs include aid aimed at arts institutions shuttered since the pandemic and affected arts workers.
The bill allocates $135 million each in supplemental funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. The grants will go to organizations “to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from the coronavirus.” Both the NEA and NEH were routinely on the chopping block in President Trump’s proposed federal budgets. Under the former administration’s CARES Act, the two agencies received $75 million last March.
Operators of qualifying shuttered theatres will see further relief through an added $1.25 billion to the previously passed Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act (an evolution of the Save Our Stages initiative championed by many members of the theatre industry during the shutdown). In addition to the act’s yet-to-launch Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, theatre owners will now also be able to apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans.
The Rescue Plan also extends COBRA premium subsidization (through September 30)—a step that the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds have called for in recent weeks, though many of their members have already lost insurance coverage through union-provided plans after a year of no work. (According to The New York Times, participants in Actors’ Equity’s healthcare plan dropped from around 6,500 to less than 4,000 since the end of 2019.)
While the latest stimulus bill indicates some level of commitment to the arts in a Biden presidency, arts organizations and individuals continue to advocate for a more formalized act of solidarity—namely, the creation of a cabinet-level Secretary of Arts and Culture.
Proponents, citing the arts’ contributions to the U.S. economy and job market as well as similar positions in countries around the world, say that the cabinet’s implementation of the department would centralize several sectors and agencies that fund the arts. The position could also serve as stalwart for artist protections, which would range from financial relief to property rights negotiations.
Among the organizations calling for this enactment is Be an #ArtsHero. The grassroots cohort launched a “100 Days of Art & Activism” campaign January 20. It is now, on the eve of the anniversary of the Broadway shutdown and Biden’s signing of the American Rescue Plan, halfway through those 100 days. The campaign kicked off with a series of open letters addressed to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, imploring the new leadership to support the arts industry. The letters hailed primarily from theatre authors—playwrights, composers, librettists; while some of their pleas for funding are answered in the new stimulus, other calls to action included cabinet-level representation and nationwide revitalization initiatives akin to the Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s.
“I would like you to consider going further [than a relief package]. We need a Department of Arts and Culture,” wrote Having Our Say playwright Emily Mann. “Since your administration will most resemble FDR’s, I hope, I wonder if you would also consider doing what he did and renew the [Works Progress Administration]. Hallie Flannagan got American artists working again in service to the country and some of the most extraordinary plays and productions were created under her watch. Nothing short of a bold move will save the American arts sector and bring it not only back to life but give it new meaning in a new age, an age dedicated to economic and social justice under your leadership.”
Performer and playwright Halley Feiffer (Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow) also invoked Flannagan: “I was named, in part, after Hallie Flanagan, the national director of the Federal Theater Project. I always felt proud to have as a namesake a woman who did so much good for the community I loved—and selfishly grateful I did not have to worry about carrying that kind of burden. But of course, I do. History is cyclical, and the Federal Theater Project was abolished within two years of its creation after HUAC accused it of touting a communist and anti-segregationist agenda. We have a chance now to reverse the cycle.”
Read more of the artists’ letters here.