Politics

Protecting the creative economy during COVID: Arts and the artists drive local economy

A person walks by Broadway posters near Times Square
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Since its founding in 1935, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), has grown into one of the leaders of modern American theater and one of the largest economic drivers of the Southern Oregon economy. In a typical year, we welcome over 400,000 people from all over the world who visit our three theaters including the oldest Elizabethan theater in the U.S. Our patrons spend more than one hundred million dollars annually as a direct result of attending theatre events at OSF. Ashland, our town of 20,000 people, has the same density of restaurants and hotels per resident as New York and Paris. With the economic multiplier effect, it is estimated that OSF generates more than a quarter billion dollars of economic activity in the Southern Oregon region annually. We are responsible for a full 20 percent of overall economic activity in the Rogue River Valley. Simply put, the arts are a powerful economic engine that drives our region and enriches our lives.

In March 2020, OSF had just opened our season, my first as Artistic Director. Within six days of opening COVID-19 forced us to shut it all down. We had already spent about $20 million to get shows ready for the stage, and patrons had paid more than $6 million for tickets that had to be refunded.

Over the next few weeks, 90 percent of OSF’s nearly 500- employees including actors, crew members, carpenters, box office, craft artisans were laid off, 829 performances of our 11 scheduled productions were shuttered, and 2,300 community engagement and education events were canceled. Within a month the 500 we layed off at OSF led 5,000 in our town 20,000 across the region  

Then in September of the same year, the Almeda fire swept through the region and destroyed more than 2000 homes and businesses, including the homes of some of the remaining OSF employees. OSF set up a food bank, provided emergency housing and dedicated a significant part of our annual Gala fundraiser to the relief effort.

I’m often haunted by the choices I had to make to keep OSF afloat, but it’s even more difficult for the culturally specific and smaller venue or community-based arts organizations and art workers. Their work has a huge impact on the creative economy and often goes under-resourced. I think about the hundreds of thousands of artists around this country who drive so much of our economy but themselves live in poverty. How can we continue viewing an industry that makes up more of our GDP than agriculture and mining combined as a luxury or the purview of the elite? How can we look millions of arts and culture workers in this country in the eye and not take the simple, common-sense steps to simultaneously make their lives and our economy more secure and robust? How can we continue cutting arts programs in schools when we know that students who participate in arts education are more likely to go to college and less likely to go to jail?  

The reality is that without the infusion of federal dollars along with the generosity of our donors and patrons it is likely that OSF and many other arts institutions would not be in existence today. We are all so thankful for the assistance provided by Congress through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program formerly known as SOS and other forms of COVID relief. 

At OSF we have a tradition. Following the curtain call of our last outdoor play each season, every person in the company carries a candle and silently enters a darkened theater to the strains of Greensleeves. A veteran company member speaks Prospero’s speech from Act IV Scene 1 of “The Tempest.” it is like a prayer… “Our revels now are ended…” …a promise, 1200 audience members from all walks of life hang on every line. The candles are extinguished and the company silently and reverently exits the theater. It marks the ending of a season of hard work and beautiful artmaking and the promise that the house lights will be kindled once more. In 2020, I was afraid that those candles had gone out forever. But I am here to tell you we will work to make sure the creative economy endures, and as artistic director, I am committed to ensuring that those candles burn bright and those words are spoken for years to come.  

That is the power Congress holds. They can ensure that the flickering candle of the creative economy can continue to burn brightly. Right now, bills such as The Creative Economy Revitalization Act, The Performing Arts Parity Act, and the Arts Education for All Act, bipartisan bills that positively impact the economies of every state and enjoy broad public support, are waiting for Congress to act. And it’s not a radical act nor is it controversial. It’s recognizing a simple fact: that the arts and the artists drive local economies and at the same time lift people out of the darkness.

Nataki Garrett is a nationally recognized director and the sixth Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), one of the few women of color in the country to lead a major theater company and OSF’s first Black female in this role. For additional information, please visit: https://www.osfashland.org

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