Commentary: Community Feels Impact From Toll COVID-19 has Taken on Arts, Culture Sector

As we learned while building the Cultural Plan, arts and culture matter deeply to Summit County residents. However, the economic reality of the pandemic is hitting artists, small business and non-profit organizations hard. In spite of challenges, the sector has a significant role to play in our region’s recovery.

Over two years ago, ArtsNow embarked on a cultural planning process that created a blueprint for collaboration and growth in the arts and culture sector to further the substantial economic and social impact that arts and culture can deliver. Today, the arts and culture sector stands ready to assist in the recovery process from COVID-19. Past administrations dating back to 1935 have relied on the creative economy to stimulate recovery, and this strategy can be used again today. To do this, we must work to shore up the sector and to ensure that the creative economy is a partner in federal, state and local solutions.

A significant step toward stabilization was taken on Sept. 22 with unprecedented support from Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro. The county has worked to allocate federal CARES Act funding across the community, and has made an investment of $1.5 million of the CARES funding specific to the non-profit arts and culture community. We are profoundly grateful to Shapiro and Summit County Council for their leadership and to the Akron Community Foundation for its partnership in this effort.

Everyone has felt the impact of COVID-19, but the arts and cultural sector has faced outsize losses. A recent study from FiveThirtyEight used public labor data to chart percentage change in sectors through the spring of 2020. Arts, entertainment and recreation as a sector is down 54%. Lodging and food services are down 47%. And for the fifth consecutive month, Ohio’s arts and entertainment sector suffers from the highest jobless rate, with one-third of the sector out of work.

Without the ability to earn income from shows and workshops, and with community donors understandably focused on public health this year, revenue and earned income in the arts and cultural sector in Summit County has decreased dramatically. The small businesses, non-profits, independent ventures and venues that comprise the arts and culture sector can’t keep their lights on or their employees paid. Without these employees and the programming they create, Summit County schools lose education opportunities, families lose recreation opportunities and our quality of life overall will suffer.

COVID-19 and the economic challenges that grew from this public health crisis present new and increasing problems, but they are problems the creative sector is uniquely positioned to affect and has a long history of addressing successfully. Locally, the Cultural Plan has given us a road map to use as an economic engine that helps propel Summit County forward from the current recession. And arts and culture is indeed an economic engine: In the Akron Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), the creative economy generates $1.4 billion. Statewide, the economic impact increases to over $41 billion. The arts mean business in Ohio and Summit County.

Through the work of the past seven years, we witnessed how many of you act as our champions. We learned that leveraging the economic capabilities of the sector was a necessity to all those we spoke with, as was continued access for children, students, young people, families, seniors — not just those who rely on arts and cultural organizations for their paycheck.

Summit County, we heard you loud and clear: The arts and cultural sector is necessary for our families, vital to our economy and integral to our quality of life. Help us light a fire in the economic engine that can move our community through and past our current recession. Let’s use every civic tool in our toolbox to enhance and support our valuable arts and culture resources so that they in turn may support us.