Feb 10, 2021 - Economy

Cities are putting artists back to work

Illustration of a hand holding a paintbrush painting a cityscape

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Mayors and governors are starting to put artists front and center in pandemic recovery efforts, funding pop-up installations and even live performances.

Why it matters: The arts have been devastated by COVID-19, which has shut down everything from Broadway to local museums, and elected leaders say restoring beauty in public places will benefit artists and viewers alike.

Driving the news: New York State plans to put artists back to work this month in a big and organized way, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week.

  • Starting Feb. 20, there will be 300 free pop-up performances that will "run through summer," per the WSJ.
  • "The idea is to have lots of performances all over the state with small audiences, the governor’s office said."
  • The move is a prelude to opening Broadway and other venues.
  • Cuomo paired the announcement with the news that indoor dining will resume in NYC (at 25% capacity) on Friday, two days earlier than originally scheduled.
  • But critics called "NY PopsUp" a P.R. stunt that harms shuttered comedy clubs, theaters and music venues by providing alternative programming.

The big picture: Similar initiatives are happening around the country, most notably in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed spending $15 million for a "California Creative Corps."

  • There's a public health element, with the artists being viewed as community health ambassadors who can encourage mask-wearing and social distancing.
  • The program would expand on the "San Francisco Creative Corps," which, among other things, sent clowns on stilts into the Mission District.
  • The idea is to "fuel positivity, regain public trust and inspire safe and healthy behavior across California’s diverse populations through a media, outreach, and engagement campaign,” per the San Francisco Chronicle (subscription).
  • Julie Baker, executive director of Californians for the Arts, tells the Chronicle that the programs are not just a bailout for a devastated industry: "We’re not here asking for handouts; we are here saying, ‘Use us in service.’"

Smaller efforts are under way in places like Milwaukee and Coral Gables, Fla., where a temporary beautification project is turning "the streets, historic buildings, and public spaces of Coral Gables into a brilliant outdoor museum."

The intrigue: One Canadian entrepreneur proposes letting painters, musicians, sculptures, and other artists populate deserted downtown commercial districts at reduced rents.

  • "This may be the time for artists to come back into the heart of American cities," Jeremy Zuker of WhereIPark writes for SmartCitiesWorld.
  • "With so much empty commercial and rental space, property owners need to find ways to fill their units, even if it’s not at the rate that they are accustomed to."

Thought bubble from Axios managing editor Scott Rosenberg: This isn't the first time that a national crisis has sparked collaborations between government and the arts. FDR pumped big money into visual and performing arts and even writers' programs as part of the New Deal effort to reverse the Great Depression.

  • These were "make work" efforts, to be sure, but they made amazing work, and some of it is still all around us in the form of public art from that era.
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