While Erlbach was invigorated by his research and writing, he wasn’t expecting to start a labor movement of his own. But as the pandemic dragged on, throwing the theater world into disarray, that is exactly what he did.
There’s no question that the pandemic has hit the arts world extremely hard. While many are industries reeling, the situation confronting facing the arts community is particularly dire. This future of art and artists in America matters. “What we are experiencing is an economic cataclysm,” Erlbach told poet and CNN contributor Tess Taylor. “The arts are not a luxury, they are an industry.” Erlbach and Taylor spoke by phone and zoom about his efforts to center the arts in national conversations about pandemic relief and repair.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Tess Taylor: So how did Be An #ArtsHero start?
Taylor: Is it strange asking artists to consider themselves part of a labor movement?
Erlbach: Many artists are in unions like the Writers Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild and so on. In the theater, film, and TV there’s already a sense of “what we do is labor.” We are literal “companies” of people coming together to do the business of a play (a small business) or a TV series, which, if you’re fortunate, is a highly profitable small business of hundreds of employees, that runs for ten seasons. What the pandemic has revealed is that, since we are so intersectional, we are not stronger in the silos of our disciplines and regions.
Taylor: Your platform is also about systematic reinvestment in the arts as a way forward for America now.
Erlbach: Talking about economics is not to diminish the cultural, human and spiritual expression of what we do. But it is to say, if we want meaningful legislation passed, we must show how arts and culture-centered businesses are the blueprint for economic revival. Because when you plant a museum, theatre, concert venue or cultural space in an area, it’s only a matter of time before coffee shops and breweries grow. Retail. Restaurants. Real estate. And before you know it, tourism. Which is tax dollars. Which helps pay for schools. And community programs. And roads. And parks. And bridges. Which is jobs. And suddenly, that community is flourishing.
Arts and culture workers are bees. We will pollinate your community. Invest in us and you will get an outsized return. And honey. In short, our fates are tied together: there is no American economic recovery without a robust arts and culture economy recovery. We are one of America’s greatest resources and we are ready to help rebuild this nation.
Taylor: Tell me about the DAWN Act and why it matters now.
Taylor: How does this effort compare to, say, the New Deal, which put American artists to work in so many places — the Farm Security Administration, for instance, or in oral history projects?
Erlbach: The New Deal was visionary in its thinking and execution. It was a public-private partnership that put Americans to work and rebuilt this nation’s infrastructure and identity. The full DAWN proposal is certainly shaped in a similar vein. Investing in public works projects that put visual artists, writers, set builders, engineers, technicians, arts admin, stagehands, designers, performers, teaching artists, arts educators, and our entire industry to work will also jumpstart arts-adjacent industries. We must embrace America’s creative workers to beautify our spaces, tell our stories, rebuild our communities for our communities, and imagine a new century. This is not just a new deal — this is a new promise.
Erlbach: The United States Department of Arts & Culture would be a cabinet-level department responsible for overseeing the implementation of locally-based, regionally-driven comprehensive economic development strategies, centered on the creative economy and Arts & Culture workers in public-private partnerships. For instance, the Department of Arts & Culture, in coordination with existing arts agencies, could work with governors, mayors, municipal leaders, and state and local arts agencies to incentivize creative worker jobs in infrastructure, public works initiatives, prisons, veterans’ affairs, education, mental health and so on.
Taylor: What’s been the most unexpected part of this journey?
Erlbach: The whole journey. When the pandemic hit, I was writing for a show called “We Are the Champions” with Rainn Wilson on Netflix — if you want to learn about competitive cheese rolling and dog dancing, I highly recommend. We were top 10 on Netflix. Hats off to Dirty Robber, who produced. So, no, I didn’t think I would be creating economic impact/loss reports for Senators and House members before meeting with their teams. And I certainly didn’t think I’d be writing a bill.
But the most unexpected part of this journey has also been the most gratifying: connecting with my fellow arts and culture workers, joining the call to make our intellectual, creative and physical labor a legislative priority and a cornerstone of America’s recovery. Really, the most unexpected part of this journey has been building community across the aisle and across the country. And seeing Amanda Gorman perform her beautiful words really sum up this moment best for me in this moment: “the new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”